March 10, 2006 – A new effort to end homelessness in the Virgin Islands by 2012 took root this week on St. Thomas, with the meeting of a new interagency council. The Interagency Council on Homelessness met Thursday and Friday at the Palms Court Harborview Hotel to develop a strategy to help people living on the streets and in a small number of privately run shelters.
According to a government official with the Department of Planning and
Natural Resources, the interagency council is an offshoot of a group
called the Continuum of Care that began assessing what it would take to address homeless issues in 2000.
Lawrence Joshua said the new group includes policy makers representing key agencies like Police, Human Services, Labor, Education, Health and Housing agencies.
"As far as the Continuum of Care is concerned, our goal is to utilize
existing services and facilities to form a continuum of care, take the homeless off the street into emergency shelter, then transitional housing, then permanent housing," Joshua said Thursday.
"What has always been missing is the government side of it – the
people who could make policies, the people who could create legislation
— that has always been missing. But now we're going to have that in the form of the interagency council."
The goal of the two-day workshop was to form an action plan and a
timeline to be used in identifying homeless populations and connecting them with service providers to meet their needs for health care, substance abuse treatment, housing and employment.
A number of participants agreed that preliminary numbers on the Virgin Islands' homeless, obtained through a point in time census taken last year, are far short of the real numbers.
At the same time, they admitted, no one knows what the real numbers
According to the census taken in May, 2005, there are 310 homeless
territorywide. However large the final homeless population turns out to be, Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said actions by the interagency council will help keep it from growing.
The council's work can't begin soon enough for Louise Petersen, executive director of the Methodist Outreach Training Center on St. Thomas, a nonprofit group that helps the homeless.
"Homelessness in the Virgin Islands is beginning to reach epidemic proportions," she said.
She said a lack of available services is making it hard for outreach workers to assist the homeless. She also said the number of homeless people in the Virgin Islands is growing, in part because of a rising number of evictions from public housing.
Petersen pointed to a smaller number of formerly sheltered homeless, now living on the streets because the programs that served them, like Shaky Acres on St. Thomas, have closed their doors.
The Methodist shelter obtained funding to renovate a building on St. Thomas to provide living quarters for a small group of former street dwellers.
But Petersen said trying to repeat that feat on St. Croix turned into a struggle when the center found that the federal government would provide a lesser subsidy because of differing market values for St. Croix real estate.
The difference between what it would cost to develop the housing and the amount of aid available to fund it left too little wiggle room, she said, and made it almost impossible to carry off.
It will be up to the council to surmount that challenge, and several
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said she would be satisfied if, by the end of the two-day meeting, responder agencies could agree on what to do if someone who's homeless suffers a crisis on the street. Right now, participants said there is no coordinated response.
"There's no one entity responsible for dealing with a crisis situation involving a homeless person in the community. What we hope to do by the time we end this session is to at least have a commitment from each agency involved – that is Human Services, the Police, and particularly Mental Health, because a lot of those clients have mental health issues," the commissioner said.
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