May 19, 2005 Anyone passing through Emancipation Garden, Times Square, King Street, or Cruz Bay on a given day is likely to see a number of homeless individuals sprawled out on benches or wandering the streets amidst visiting tourists on all three islands. While some pay no attention to these individuals, some professionals deal with them on a regular basis.
These professionals spoke on behalf of their clients Wednesday night at a hearing of the Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee. Committee Chairman Sen. Usie Richards had called the meeting to hear the plight of the mentally ill and homeless in the Virgin Islands.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said her department was undertaking the task of addressing the territory's homeless situation under an executive order from the federal government. The territory was required to develop and submit a plan to prevent and end chronic homelessness by 2012.
A 26-member body made up of professionals, advocates and homeless persons is tasked with the responsibility for carrying out the plan or to revise and update it as necessary, Halbert said.
Halbert said as yet, no funds have been awarded to implement the territory's plan. She said the plan's success depends on the amount of local funding set aside for it and on the lawmakers' interest in addressing the needs of the homeless.
The Human Services commissioner said mental illness is not an issue that most people like to think about until "it strikes someone close to us." Halbert said the community only cries out when the mentally ill become a threat to the economic well being of the public.
"If we can move beyond this way of thinking and be concerned enough to put in place all that is necessary to create a system of care that is efficient and effective, the problem can be managed on a long term basis," Halbert said.
Halbert said the public and private sectors and community advocates needed to work together to bring about a solution.
Desiree Lambertis, Village V.I. Partners In Recovery coordinator, agreed with Halbert.
"If the problem is not on our doorstep, we ignore it," Lambertis said.
Lambertis said the problem of homelessness is often a result of substance abuse or mental illness.
"Substance abuse equals homelessness; mental illness equals homelessness," Lambertis said. "All of us are a paycheck away from homelessness."
Testifiers told the committee that money was needed to help address the homelessness situation in the territory, and said they hoped that the hearing would not be talk as usual.
"There is not just a need for money," Richards said. "There is a need for the better utilization of the money."
Richards told the testifiers once money becomes available, it would be used to combat mental illness and homelessness in the territory.
He said, "This is not just an exercise for me."
Committee members present at the hearing were: Sens. Craig Barshinger, Liston Davis, Neville A. James and Richards. Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Norman Jn Baptiste were absent. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who is not a member of the committee, was also present.
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