MV_Karen_and_Esther.jpgKaren Tewhey (left) and Esther Laiacona are providing a visible presence for HAC on Martha’s Vineyard. 

Martha’s Vineyard residents looking for support with housing issues are in luck thanks to an on-island HAC representative focused on assisting those in need.

That position, funded by the state, was filled in January by Karen Tewhey, a seasonal resident on Martha’s Vineyard for 25 years. She moved to the island permanently in October with her husband James Tewhey, an attorney.

Joining Tewhey with providing an island presence for HAC has been Esther Laiacona, who was hired to oversee special projects under the direction of Nancy Davison, the agency’s vice president of program operations.

Tewhey, whose official title is housing counselor, works out of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority on State Road in Vineyard Haven, where she has been helping to address the island’s diverse housing needs.

Just three months into her assignment, Tewhey spoke to those needs which she termed “enormous,” highlighting the Vineyard’s, “high percentage of individuals in substandard housing: families living in one room with their children; families doubled up in substandard units; and families involved in the housing shuffle who don’t have permanent housing for 12 months of the year.”

Tewhey has worked closely with the community’s homeless men and women who benefitted from Hospitality Homes, a new program started by the Martha’s Vineyard Island Clergy Association this winter to provide shelter to this segment of the population. The shelters, located at Federated Church and Grace Episcopal Church in Edgartown, provided food and a bed to 18 men and 5 women, through the end of March.

Island’s Housing Challenges

She said the program was successful in providing a structured, safe, comfortable environment for those who are most vulnerable. At the same time, she said, it has highlighted gaps in services on the Vineyard which start with the lack of year-round affordable housing. “There are no apartments available at all on the island,” Tewhey said. Compounding this problem is that many individuals and families live in apartments or homes with nine-month leases, forcing them to find temporary housing during the summer as part of the island’s housing shuffle.

Tewhey is available to provide support for anyone with housing needs on the island and works closely with Laiacona, who was homeless on Martha’s Vineyard with her two children for 15 months. Laiacona now sits on the Martha’s Vineyard Homelessness Task Force, offering a real-life perspective on the challenges of being homeless on the island.

“I understanding what it’s like to not eat a meal so you can buy shoes,” Laiacona said, noting that her experience gives her a compassion for those who are homeless and a voice advocating for change.

At HAC, her first project was to research the health and human services resources available in Dukes County, Barnstable County, statewide and nationwide, information that will go on the Massachusetts Housing Consumer Education Centers website ( as well as the HAC website.

Together, Laiacona and Tewhey are forging a presence on the island so that HAC can better address the housing needs there. “I think it’s satisfying to me to be a knowledgeable resource for individuals who might not know how to maneuver through the system,” Tewhey said. “It can be daunting to deal with state agencies, so I have the luxury and education where I can be a resource for residents and a voice for them.”

If you live on Martha’s Vineyard, you can learn more about our services on the island by clicking this link.