They sleep in vehicles, garages and on other people’s couches. They squat in summer homes and pitch tents in their friends’ backyards. They are the Island’s homeless, the community’s most vulnerable but invisible population.
And the safety net to protect them is inadequate, say members of the clergy and county administration, who are calling for an Islandwide response to the increasing number of people facing the crisis of housing instability.
When she first started as associate commissioner for the homeless on behalf of Dukes County in 2008, Connie Teixeira knew of only a handful of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Since then, the number rose to 117 in January of 2013, and this year it is estimated at 160. And she’s certain there are others she has yet to identify.
The group includes about 20 people waiting for elder housing, and 80 unemployed men in the construction trades. There are two families living in cars and a man living in a bus. About 30 are young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who sleep on other people’s couches and in their unheated garages.
Some commit petty crimes just to spend a night in the warm county jail, she said.
Though many do not sleep outside every night, even when they do, they can be difficult to locate, Ms. Teixeira said.
“We are now just getting an element of trust,” she said, describing the trust as tenuous.
She’s been working to develop relationships and penetrate the underground community of the homeless, but she said the Island poses unique challenges.
David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, agreed. “The smallness of the community, which can very much be a benefit, can also be a deterrent,” he said.
When the weather turned bitterly cold at the start of the year, Ms. Teixeira faced an even graver challenge in catering to the needs of the homeless population.
Since the jail purchased new blankets, she has been able to acquire its old blankets, fit for Antarctica, she said, to pass out to those in need.
But her other resources are insufficient.
A county fund allots her $1,000 per year for hotel vouchers, to put people up at a local hotel for a temporary stay.
The program has met some success addressing some temporary housing emergencies, but often only one hotel room is available at a time, she said.
Sometimes she negotiates a lower rate with the hotels so that the person can afford the room on their own, which helps to preserve some pride, she said.
She’s found other funding sources in the Island faith community, with which she maintains a discretionary fund, available to help people in their homes pay rental assistance and heating bills. Others she sends to Hyannis, arranging a taxi to pick them up in Woods Hole and deposit them at a shelter by noon, when guests are advised to line up for admission.
In Hyannis people can get connected to the services and government programs that help them find long-term solutions.
Last year about $20,000 was donated to Ms. Teixeira’s cause, mostly by churches and private donors.
Members of the clergy stress that the plight of the homeless on the Island is compounded by the lack of emergency housing and advocacy.
“There are not a lot of places to go that are safe, and money is tight all over,” said Richard Rego, pastor at the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard.
He and another 17 members of the Island clergy group met Tuesday to discuss their plan of action for tackling homelessness, creating shelter on the Vineyard, and hiring and training a professional caseworker.
They also would like to work toward establishing transitional housing to function as a temporary shelter for those caught in an emergency housing situation.
At the county Ms. Teixeira has a title but no office, and no pay. Her volunteer role is daunting and she often feels unequipped to meet the needs of the population she serves.
She and members of the Island clergy will take the issue up with the county commission next Wednesday, and hope to approach the selectmen of each town in the coming months. Ideally they would like the towns to absorb some of the increasing public cost associated with people who are homeless.
In 2010 the last of the state funding dried up for transitional assistance and casework.
Starting in the 1990s, a limited number of transitional units were available.
But funding sources are long gone due to state and federal cuts, Mr. Vingeault said.
He and other Island groups are working to better accommodate the need in the lowest income brackets, to increase the housing available and to dole out more subsidies.
“The need for housing on Martha’s Vineyard is critical,” said Jessica Burgoyne, executive director of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that offers zero per cent interest mortgages to people on the lower end of the area median income scale.
“Habitat is doing everything and anything it can to grow its capacity to be more of an affordable housing developer on the Island.”
The annual homeless count will be conducted on Jan. 30.