The Harbor Homes winter shelter in Oak Bluffs closed for the season Saturday morning, after experiencing its busiest year ever.

The winter shelter operates during the off-season, this year from Nov. 1 to April 20, on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus. The spring closing leaves more than a dozen Islanders without a place to sleep.

The nearest year-round shelter for the homeless is on Cape Cod.

“All of us are going to leave and go home to a warm place and our guests aren’t,” shelter manager Lisa Belcastro said at an open house marking the end of the shelter season.

Out of 15 people who stayed over on Friday night, just two have found a rental apartment, Ms. Lisa Belcastro told the Gazette.

Since opening on Nov. 1, Harbor Homes has sheltered a total of 54 individuals, with up to 20 people — the maximum allowed — checking in before the 7 p.m. cutoff each night, Ms. Belcastro said.

Sleeping area at the shelter. — Ray Ewing

“We hit 20 a lot,” Ms. Belcastro said, while fighting back tears more than once as she spoke on Saturday.

During the previous winter, fewer than 40 individual guests registered for at least one stay at the shelter. Ms. Belcastro feels the year-to-year increase is largely due to the Island’s persistent lack of housing opportunities for workers earning local wages.

“I think this season has certainly proven that homelessness is not about mental health issues or family problems or addiction,” she said, estimating that nearly two-thirds of the guests have seasonal or year-round jobs on the Vineyard.

“They are your sous chefs and your gardeners and your builders and your stonemasons and your store clerks,” Ms. Belcastro said.

“We need people to live here and to do those jobs... I’ve got so many workers living in the shelter who have jobs on-Island who can’t afford to live here. And it’s not their fault. We need to have affordable housing."

Saturday’s open house gave Islanders a chance to tour the shelter, located on the first floor of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ former early childhood education building. Two large classrooms provide separate sleeping rooms for women and men, on either side of a central dining area crowded with tables, chairs and folding cots.

The men’s dormitory has 15 cots, but has accommodated 16 people when needed.

“We did a blow-up mattress,” Ms. Belcastro said.

After Saturday's opening house, participants took a walk as part of A Mile in My Shoes 365 campaign. — Ray Ewing

For extra-busy nights, there are cots in the dining area. The women’s sleeping room has fewer cots, but they have been in steady use.

“We had six consistent women who stayed with us, but we actually had 12 registered women guests this year — that’s a huge high,” Ms. Belcastro said.

Shelter guests are served dinner and breakfast, provided by community meal programs and local restaurants, and can watch movies in the dining area, where a separate table has seen the assembly of more than a dozen jigsaw puzzles over the winter.

“I just took 14, 1,000-piece puzzles to Chicken Alley,” Ms. Belcastro told about three dozen people who turned out for the open house.

Nurse-practitioner Janet Constantino, a longtime shelter volunteer, told the audience that providing health care is difficult when patients are homeless. Without consistent housing and a place to store their prescriptions, patients can wind up needing more urgent services, she and Ms. Belcastro said.

Another volunteer named Janet, who asked that her last name not be published, told the Gazette she’s experienced homelessness herself: first as a young child of a troubled mother and, later, as an 18-year-old just out of foster care and attending college with no family support.

She volunteers for Harbor Homes weekly, washing shelter guests’ laundry and cleaning the shower room — both services located at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, where the winter shelter program began in early 2016 — because she knows that homelessness can happen to people who’ve done nothing to deserve it, Janet said.

“People need to understand that,” she said.

Saturday’s open house concluded with 30 people taking a nearly two-mile walk along the bike path in the drizzling rain, to acknowledge that homeless people are outside in all conditions.

“We’re walking because they have to walk,” Ms. Belcastro said.

The walk was part of Harbor Homes’ new awareness campaign, A Mile in My Shoes 365, which challenges all ages to move 365 miles during 2024 while connecting with other Islanders supporting homelessness prevention.

After returning to the shelter via Sanderson Road through the state forest and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School campus, Harbor Homes staffers and volunteers began folding up the cots and packing bedding into sturdy storage containers until next season.

But it’s not clear yet where the cots will be unfolded next November. The regional high school owns the community service campus, and Harbor Homes must get the school committee’s permission each year to operate the shelter in the former pre-school classrooms. The committee first approved the Harbor Homes shelter as an emergency measure in January, 2022, after the need for beds began to overwhelm the capacity at down-Island churches. The school committee later extended the agreement through this spring.

School committee members and Oak Bluffs police have said they want the shelter to move somewhere farther from the school, the YMCA and senior housing in the area, and the state has awarded Harbor Homes a $2.5 million grant to operate a permanent location. But while the nonprofit has purchased two transitional houses for people moving out of homelessness — a residence for six men in Tisbury and one for six women in Oak Bluffs — it has struggled to buy property that can become a nightly shelter.

A promising deal for a former workers’ dorm in Oak Bluffs fell through last October after neighbors expressed safety concerns and zoning officials referred the project to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, leading Harbor Homes to pull out.

“[I]t would not make sense to place at-risk individuals in a location where they are not welcomed into the neighborhood to build trusting relationships,” the nonprofit said in a statement at the time.