Nov. 21, 2005 They walk the streets of Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted, Christiansted and Cruz Bay every day, largely overlooked by the populace as they search for food and somewhere to lay their heads.
The faces belong to the territory's homeless, a growing population in paradise.
Richard Gomez knows all too well the faces of these men, women and, on occasion, even children. As shelter manager at the St. Thomas Bethlehem House, a haven for the homeless operated by Catholic Charities, he serves the individuals every day. But Gomez's knowledge goes far deeper: He also walked in their shoes at one point in his life.
Gomez said he doesn't remember the exact years that he spent roaming the streets of Charlotte Amalie, but he did become homeless due to a drug addiction.
"When it comes to being homeless, dates and times are not of importance to you," Gomez said, adding it was sometime before 1993. "I was just struggling to stay alive and feed my addiction."
Gomez said because his family was not supportive of his lifestyle he took to the streets.
"I was homeless by choice," Gomez said. "It's not that I didn't have a place to go, but I couldn't take the ridicule."
Even at times when people were trying to help him, Gomez said he rejected them, choosing to beg and do anything to fuel his drug intake, which grew to an almost $500-a-day cocaine habit.
"It was by any means necessary to get this drug," Gomez said. "I just had to have my drug."
Gomez said he was arrested and sent to rehabilitation to overcome his drug habit. But he was eventually thrown out and picked up his drug habit again. After a second arrest in 1992, Gomez was sent to prison for six months at the request of his sister.
"I didn't understand then why she would want me to go to jail, but I know now that was the only way I would have overcome," Gomez said.
After five months in prison he was released. That was when he was granted a job as the caretaker of the Bethlehem House, a position Gomez said he was grateful for.
"Ever since that time I've been trying to give back to society," Gomez said. "I am here to help anybody in this [homeless] situation. I've traveled that road and know what it's like.
"I think," he added, "I'm fortunate to have this job here."
A Caring Place
Catholic Charities operates two homeless shelters in the territory, one in Hospital Ground on St. Thomas, and the other in Kingshill on St. Croix. Both shelters are called Bethlehem House.
"We're the only homeless shelters, per se, in the territory," Michael Akin, Catholic Charities director, said.
There are three main factors for homelessness in the Virgin Islands: poverty, mental illness and substance abuse, according to Akin.
"Poverty is the main cause of homelessness in the territory," Akin said. "A lot of people in the territory are a paycheck away from being homeless."
Akin said the clients at the shelters are usually people who, for some reason or another, cannot afford a place to stay. The shelter does not house severely mentally ill individuals, he said, and only takes in clients for a short period of time.
"We always have to be conscious of the safety of our environment," Akin said.
The St. Thomas shelter accommodates 40 individuals men, women and children. On St. Croix, the shelter accommodates 30 people and can only house women and children. However, Akin said that's about to change. He said the St. Croix shelter is being remodeled to "create a space for men."
On average, about 20 individuals are housed at the shelters at any given time. Akin said on St. Thomas the male population at the shelter is greater than women and children, but the shelter does serve many single mothers.
"We've had mothers who've come in who were waiting for public housing and had nowhere else to go," Akin said. "There's less and less affordable housing and a lot of it is substandard. We would like to see more affordable housing."
In one instance, Bethlehem House currently is home to three generations of women: A mother, her daughter and the daughter's week-old infant have all found shelter there after being evicted from their apartment because they couldn't pay their rent.
Akin said the shelter houses many veterans and individuals coming from the mainland who use the facility from time to time. He said they do not take in undocumented residents except with referrals from the hospital.
"The hospitals will often call our shelter for that," Akin said, adding that often times there are individuals at the hospitals with no place to be discharged.
Akin said he was glad Gov. Charles W. Turnbull decided to proclaim last week as "Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week." More needs to be done for the homeless, Akin said, and government agencies such as Health and Mental Health need to step up their efforts.
"We try to work with these agencies," Akin said, but added that there's "only so much" that organizations like Catholic Charities can do.
In addition to the homeless shelters, Catholic Charities also operates soup kitchens on all three islands and has a mobile kitchen on St. Thomas to distribute food to the mentally ill on the streets twice a week.
"We do hope to expand that service to St. Croix, funding permitting," Eloise Benjamin, Catholic Charities assistant director said.
Benjamin has been working with the organization for the past four years on St. Croix.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed it," Benjamin said. "At the end of the day, I go home knowing I have touched someone's life."
On Saturday, a pre-Thanksgiving meal was offered at Bethlehem House. On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the shelter will host the real deal. All are welcome to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner starting at noon.
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