Correction- see editor’s note.
The Committee on Finance met Tuesday and voted to keep a bill in the Committee on Finance that would allocate $325,000 from the Community Facility Trust Fund to the General Fund, in order to support the refurbishment of #40-B Company Street in Christiansted by the Collective Collaboration.
According to committee chairman Kurt Vialet, the bill “will allow Collective Collaboration to purchase the building and begin the process of refurbishing the building” and clarified that the non-profit organization already has a retainer on the property.
Karen Dickenson, president of the organization, said the cost to purchase the property is $275,000.
Dickenson mentioned that the Collective Collaboration was established in 2020 and serves as an adult mental health and homeless program that provides meals, showers, laundry, shelter, and wrap-around services to its members. To date, the organization has provided more than 60,000 meals, housed over 150 individuals in their current location, placed more than 30 individuals into apartments, reunited over 35 individuals back to the mainland to families or institutions, dispatched three individuals to the mainland for rehabilitation treatment, and assisted many in obtaining legal documents, such as birth certificates.
Sens. Novelle Francis, the bill sponsor, Javan James Sr., Samuel Carrion, and Vialet were expressly supportive of the bill. They each alluded that the work of the Collective Collaboration will greatly assist members of the community.
“Homelessness is both a public health and a moral crisis,” said Francis. “Homelessness is a crisis across the nation, and the territory is not spared.”
However, other members of the legislative and testifying body did not fully concur with the bill.
Vincent Richards, deputy commissioner for the Department of Property and Procurement, suggested to the legislative body that the government acquire the property for itself and then lease the property to Collective Collaboration.
“If any funds from this appropriation would be earmarked for the acquisition of property, the Government would need to acquire the property itself,” said Richards.
Sen. Marvin Blyden agreed.
“If we are going to be putting money into the building, we should be the ones leasing the building,” said Blyden.
Vialet, however, referenced that the “government, without going through a competitive process, gave one million dollars to build a dialysis center on St. Croix. A private dialysis center” that is “not going to be owned by this government.”
Sens. Dwayne DeGraff and Donna Frett-Gregory also expressed concerns with the bill. They referenced specificity about the property location and amendments to the bill as areas that they needed more clarity on.
“It isn’t, for me, about the $325,000 note. It’s the way in which we are doing something,” said DeGraff. He commended the sponsors for the intent of the bill but wanted more clarification on the refurbishment costs of the building.
Sen. Frett-Gregory said that she was confused. She expressed that she wanted more insight into the “public-private partnership” between the government and Collective Collaboration.
“Our responsibility is accountability and oversight,” she said.
A lot of disdain was shared by senators about the bill. However, Francis later said that he felt as though he was in the ‘twilight’ zone after hearing many of the comments.
“I can’t seem to understand where this conversation is headed,” said Francis. “We continue to throw daggers at an individual that’s out there doing the work … Let’s do what we can to bring some semblance of order to this problem that we are facing.”
Vialet told the body that one is able to see the difference that Collective Collaboration has made in Christiansted and said that business owners and professionals regularly call on the organization to manage homeless individuals. He told a story about a situation where he saw Dickenson assisting a man sleeping on the street and how the man appeared much happier getting into the truck of the Collective Collaboration president to be assisted by her.
“Is everything there conventional? No, it’s not. Does she have a conventional approach? No. But she has an approach where I’ve seen her be able to go up to that homeless population that’s ranting and raving and get them calmed down, get them into her vehicle, and get them to get some help,” said Vialet.
According to Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez, Collective Collaboration “seems to have a positive impact on the immediate area” and ensures “unsheltered homeless persons can have easy access to assistance.”
Through tears, Dickenson expressed in her opening testimony that “We are in crisis, and no one seems to care. The necessary resources to address the problem is nowhere in sight.”
According to Francis, serving the homeless is a task that the government has not done well.
“Let us work together to fix this problem in our community,” said Francis.
Sens. Blyden, Degraff, Frett-Gregory, and Sarauw voted for the bill to be held in the Committee on Finance. Sens. Carrion and James voted against it. Sen. Vialet did not vote.
Editor’s Note: This has been updated to correct the outcome of the vote.