A successful program for the chronically homeless may get shut down if funding cannot be found; and the territory is facing court-imposed fines if it cannot fund closing St. Croix’s Anguilla landfill. Agency and charity officials spoke about these needs, asking for legislative appropriations or bond authorizations, during a committee hearing Friday, but theirs are not the only unmet needs in the territory. Others include the massively underfunded government pension fund and an immediate crisis over funding for school lunches. (See Related Links below)
The Committee on Housing, Public Works and Waste Management, chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden, on Friday heard from several government agencies and charities on the status of emergency housing in the Virgin Islands. Officials told senators the need outstrips the supply.
“According to the most recent Virgin Islands Point-In-Time Count, there is a total of 448 homeless individuals in the territory, of which 363 are un-sheltered,” V.I. Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Adrienne Williams said.
"The territory receives $152,446 funding from the (federal Housing and Urban Development agency Emergency Solutions Grant) program, which is a far cry from the funding needed to have a significant impact on the issue of homelessness," she said.
One innovative program focused directly on the chronically homeless, Catholic Charities’ Home At Last, has been a big success, helping 26 St. Thomas homeless begin a transition to becoming productive members of society. But after only a year and a half, it is struggling to stay afloat and was not funded in the most recent budget. (See Related Links below)
Richard Bourne-Vanneck, chair of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands board, and Monique Dorsett, program coordinator for the Home At Last project, both spoke about the early success of the program, bringing in individuals who had completely fallen through the cracks and had no hope but now were getting medical and mental health care, along with housing, and really turning around. The committee heard testimony from one individual who had been living in an abandoned building for an extended period, and had given up hope, but was now hopeful about the future.
Sen. Clifford Graham asked how much the program needed to continue operating. Bourne-Vanneck said it needed about $600,000 to $700,000 per year to keep running on St. Thomas, and similar funding to set up another program on St. Croix.
Graham and other senators agreed the territory had a problem and funding was important, but expressed frustration at a lack of a single, coordinated approach.
“I understand the need for additional funding. However, there is no comprehensive plan to request monies with a clear outline of how the funds will be expended in a reasonable time frame,” Graham said.
Human Services Commissioner Vivian Ebbesen-Fludd responded, saying there will be meetings with more than 30 agencies at the end of February and the development of a comprehensive plan will be on the agenda.
Graham suggested some of the territory’s federal Community Development Block Grant funding could be focused on the homeless, if there were a comprehensive plan.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd pointed out that there was no such program for the homeless on St. John, which he said has similar problems as St. Croix and St. Thomas. He suggested that some of the territory’s empty housing could be used for the homeless.
"I know we need money. But we have got to be creative," Liburd said.
According to testimony at Friday’s hearing, this is the breakdown of emergency housing units in the territory: There are 44 units collectively on St. Croix in Campo Rico, Anna’s Hope and Estate Profit; on St. Thomas there are 32 units combined in the Staabiland and Charlotte Apartments.
For temporary shelter, on St. Croix, the shelter managed by Women’s Coalition has a total of 38 beds. On St. Thomas, the shelter managed by Family Resource Center has a total of 44 beds, Ebbesen-Fludd said.
“What is the wait time per district for a homeless individual to receive emergency housing?” Sen. Marvin Blyden, the committee chair, asked. Dorsett said it can take three to four years.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly said local churches should have the ability to provide additional assistance to the homeless since they are tax exempt.
“Churches can do more, churches should do more to alleviate the homeless population in the territory,” O’Reilly said.
Lawmakers also received an update from the V.I. Waste Management Authority on landfills, household hazard waste, sewage and wastewater treatment. Most of these areas need more funding, and some, such as the landfills, are approaching a crises state.
“The ability to carry out the operational mandates in an effective and efficient manner continues to be challenged by the ongoing fiscal shortfalls of the operating and capital budgets," WMA Chief Operating Officer Steven Aubain said.
Aubain added that WMA continues to struggle with the shortage of landfilling capacities at both the Anguilla and Bovoni Landfills and the landfills are facing fines because they are not in compliance with federal consent decrees.
WMA Executive Director May Adams Cornwall urged the Legislature to authorize bond funding to help close the landfill. She also said the WMA would need to charge user fees and disposal fees to be able to fulfill its mandates.
No legislation was considered and no votes taken at the information-gathering committee hearing.