On Saturday, January 31st a Point in Time Count of the unsheltered homeless was held across the territory. This count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all jurisdictions receiving HUD funding. Member agencies of the Virgin Islands Continuum of Care on Homelessness and community volunteers conducted the count.
The preliminary results of this year’s count are considerably lower than that for recent years on all three islands. The organizers of the count have pointed out that this may be attributed to many variables, including fewer volunteer counters than in previous years with the result that some of the homeless population could have been missed. But it may also be an indication that the numbers of homeless are truly decreasing, and that can certainly be construed as good news.
What is not good news are the living conditions of those being counted. Many of us are accustomed to seeing an individual asleep on a sidewalk or a park bench. We see them at soup kitchens and clothing banks. Few of us, even those with experience working in homeless programs, are prepared for the filth and stench of a homeless encampment such as was found at the long abandoned Michelle Motel. It is estimated that as many as thirty individuals are living at the site.
As one experienced outreach worker explained, “Once you stay there, it’s awful the first two nights; then you adjust.”
Also awful is that we as a territory have come to accept it. We have become used to encampments of homeless individuals, many of whom are suffering from addiction and other illnesses. We have adjusted. What should be a public shame has become the norm.
We know from our outreach efforts at Catholic Charities that such encampments exist throughout the territory, be it the Michelle Motel or in Smith Bay on St. Thomas, mid-island on St. Croix, or Coral Bay, St. John. From experience, I anticipate that the public conversation will soon become “What is being done to repair the Michelle Motel?”
But I believe that there is a much more important conversation: “What can be done to repair those who are living in those encampments like the Michelle Motel?” It is a Health issue, a Public Safety issue and an issue that the territory must address, and not an issue to be passed off to underfunded non-profit social service agencies.
The very good news is that we know of ten individuals that were counted in the 2013 Point in Time count who were not included in this year’s enumeration. That is because those individuals are now housed and are participants in Home at Last! which is a Permanent Supportive Housing pilot project funded by the local government and operated by Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. All were street homeless; one in Cruz Bay and the others in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Since October 2014, a team of social work professionals have been engaging homeless individuals on the street, making assessments and providing counseling to those who are ready to be housed. Once housed, the same team provides the supportive services to the individual to keep them housed. A housing specialist engages landlords with one bedroom or efficiency apartments who are willing to participate in the program. Catholic Charities leases the apartment and the housing specialist acts as the liaison between the agency, the landlord and the client. A Mental Health and Substance Abuse Specialist, two case managers and a project coordinator round out the support team. An Employment Specialist will soon be added. The team works with mainstream agencies such as the East End Clinic, the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services. Our goal is to have forty individuals housed by December 2015.
Permanent Supportive Housing has been proven to be an effective tool in reducing chronic homelessness across the country. In its Executive Summary of the State of Homelessness in America 2013, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leading research and advocacy group, finds that the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness decreased significantly. The NAEH attributes this decrease to “federal investment in effective solutions, such as permanent supportive housing.”
The Virgin Islands Home at Last! Pilot program is based on national models, and we have every reason to believe that it will provide similar results. Moreover, we can take pride in the fact that it is a locally sponsored effort and a sign that our community does care.
Editor’s note: Michael Akin is the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, a member of the VI Interagency Council on Homelessness and past chair of the VI Continuum of Care on Homelessness.
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