Shhh...Be quiet and keep your voices down.
We shouldn’t be talking about this.
We should be talking about Nantucket’s incredible beaches or the Land Bank’s $31.8 million in revenue last year or Millie’s expansion to the Strip.
We shouldn’t be talking about homelessness on Nantucket because Nantucket doesn’t have any homeless people.
“When I first arrived on Nantucket in 2013, I started noticing the problem” said Reverend Linda Simmons of the Unitarian Universalist Church. “It was clear I wasn’t the first person who tried to address this issue, but in my mind, it became a mandate
“By the summer of 2014, I knew this was the direction I wanted to go,” Simmons added. “I have never lived anywhere where the desire to help other people did not exist. It exists here on Nantucket. It’s who we are. Everyone deserves some level of dignity and sense of worth.”
So, how does one tackle a problem on Nantucket that no one wants to talk about?
Simmons and fellow team member, Debbie DuBois, knew how. Thanks to a casual walk through town and a chance encounter with an “unsheltered person,” an idea was hatched and the ACK Homelessness Team was born. As DuBois pointed out: “We have unsheltered people on Nantucket, not homeless. Everyone considers Nantucket to be their home.”
The ACK Homelessness Team is a loosely organized group of dedicated volunteers who are committed to helping those on Nantucket who are unsheltered. Sparked by Simmons, a small group that included Sue Mynttinen, Holly McGowan, Elise Norton, Taylor Hilst and DuBois, started reaching out to communities all over New England including Martha’s Vineyard which had opened an overnight shelter in 2013.
Today, that group has grown to roughly 20 community volunteers. Additionally, several organizations such as the Unitarian Church, the American Legion, the Community Foundation for Nantucket, Summer Street Church, Rockland Trust, Cape Cod 5, the Nantucket Police and Fire departments, Fairwinds, The Cliff Lodge, The Seconds Shop, the Family Resource Center, the Inter-Faith Counsel, Nantucket Cottage Hospital and the Nantucket Rotary Club have all stepped up to help secure everything from food and clothing to financial contributions, toiletries and even a home cooked Christmas dinner.
“We are very grateful to those who have assisted us,” said DuBois. “Our Captains, volunteers and so many people around Nantucket have been terrific. People are starting to talk about the issues and understand that there are unsheltered on Nantucket that need help. We have an obligation to do something”.
One “something” that took place in November of 2021 was the opening of The Warming Place in the Summer Street Church with the support of Derek Worthington and his congregation. The Warming Place is open two days per week offering daytime shelter and hot food where “guests” can feel safe and learn more about assistance programs and counseling.
Clearly, the ACK Homelessness Team needs help. They are presently trying to develop a strategic plan to grow its services, raise awareness, and identify more unsheltered in need, with the hopes of opening an overnight shelter down the road. It’s a steep hill to climb. With limited resources and Reverend Simmons transitioning off island before the summer, DuBois and company have a long way to go to overcome the stigma associated with homelessness - especially on Nantucket.
But, before we go any further, let me introduce you to Colin Wyatt Leddy.
Colin is 61 years old. He was well educated at an elite private prep school, graduated from Georgetown University, and worked for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. He grew up primarily on the East Coast and traveled and lived in Europe for over five years. Often a visitor to Nantucket during his youth, Colin returned to Nantucket in 1999 and he has “lived” here ever since.
While sitting across from him at The Warming Place, Colin described himself: “I am a client - a guest - and an activist”.
Colin is also unsheltered.
Bouts of depression - physical problems - and psychological struggles?
Yes - Yes - Yes.
“Homelessness in itself is trauma,” explained Leddy. “Thankfully, I have never gotten to a point of where I would consider harming myself. But there have been thousands of days where I was unsure of where I would be sleeping that night. On Nantucket, I know people who tent or live in their cars. It’s excruciating and I know we all ask the same question: How much longer can I stand up to this?”
Colin went on to describe how unique every homeless person is in this world. “Everyone has a different story. Male or female, it doesn’t matter.... we are all singular in our struggles,” said Leddy.
“It’s not a picnic,” Leddy went on. “I have had some rough times. I’ve been robbed. My personal belongings were set on fire. But I have never been physically abused. All I ask is for people to try and understand the unsheltered.
“What most of you take for granted each day are significant struggles for me,” Leddy added. “I need shelter. I have to deal with acute medical conditions or hydration. If you saw me two months ago, I couldn’t do this... I was in rough shape. The Warming Place has been a godsend to me, and today, I am feeling better.”
Later on, I could sense Colin was getting antsy. It was late in the afternoon and after driving around the edge of town, I asked Colin where he wanted to go. As soon as I posed the question, I realized what an idiot I must have sounded like as if he needed a ride to a house on Hussey Street or a lift to Miacomet to play golf.
“I’ll walk from here,” he said.
“Walk where?” I asked. “It’s cold, rainy and raw and in the 30s.”
“Often times, I spend about 23 hours a day outside. This is child’s play,” Leddy said.
We finally agreed to a drop off spot on Brant Point. Driving up toward the lighthouse, it was impossible not to get a little emotional. For a minute, Colin wandered off and reminisced about the kindness shown by the Nantucket Police Charitable Association via Fairwinds a few years back when they replaced all of his clothes from socks and shoes to underwear, pants, a shirt and a jacket because he was robbed.
As he started to climb out of my truck, it seemed Colin was on a mission despite the fact I kept pestering him about his jacket and his ability to stay dry.
“I know people are worse off than me,” he said. “I don’t need anything right now. I lead a simple life.”
How true, and yet, how ironic. Surrounded by large, empty estates on Hulbert Avenue and Easton Street, Colin wandered off towards the beach in the cold rain.
I hope Colin and others who are “homeless” are able to make it to the Warming Place this winter. God knows, they could use it. And if you think you are having a rough start to your day, just try walking in the shoes of the unsheltered.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about volunteering at The Warming Place can email firstname.lastname@example.org