Successful V.I. Homeless Program May Fall Through the Cracks

Home At Last! – an innovative new homeless support program begun little more than a year ago – may have helped the territory reduce homelessness faster than the nation as a whole, even amid several years of budget woes and a struggling V.I. economy. But despite good early results, housing 25 chronically homeless and moving them toward self-sufficiency, the program, which cost less than one million dollars to set up and run, is now unfunded and may close if nothing is done.

In November the territory received good news that USVI homeless rates had dropped faster than the nation as a whole, and chronic homelessness – the severe, long-term homelessness we see on the streets – fell much faster. 

According to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency statistics, V.I. chronic homeless fell 94 percent since 2010, compared to a 22 percent drop nationally. HUD found a total of 22 V.I. individuals to be chronically homeless in January 2015. (See:  V.I. Homelessness Dropped Faster than National Figures Since 2010 in Related Links below)

These are the most visible and severe cases, and are often associated with mental illness combined with alcohol and substance abuse. They are especially difficult to address, but with relatively small numbers, making permanent changes for even a few individuals has a big impact on both those individuals and the community as a whole.

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Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands put together the "Home at Last" program in 2011 and was awarded a one-time $950,000 federal grant in September 2014. They spent a portion of the grant on salaries for specialists to help provide assessments and support services once the person is housed.

Catholic Charities locates one-bedroom homes at scattered sites.

Since October 2014, Catholic Charities has placed 25 people in rental apartments through the Home at Last program. All were street homeless, one in Cruz Bay and the others in downtown Charlotte Amalie.

The essential premise of the Home at Last program is that it costs fewer taxpayer dollars to give the chronic homeless long-term housing than to leave them on the street and pay for police, prisons and hospital emergency rooms to deal with them.

Having a population living on the street is very expensive because the homeless use vastly more public resources. Police have to respond again and again for the same individuals for public intoxication, minor crimes and incidents arising from mental health issues – all costing hours of time. And of course this sort of homelessness is a blight both for Virgin Islanders trying to live and raise their families and for the tourism industry that plays an ever-increasing role in the local economy.

The concept is not just theoretical. Data from many studies suggests direct housing assistance – just paying rent for homeless persons – is both the cheapest way to address the problem and saves equal or greater amounts of money that would have been spent on police response, incarceration and medical treatment at emergency rooms.

Once in stable housing for a time, many former street homeless are able to stabilize enough to begin treatment for mental health issues and move on to more stable lives. (See “Training Session Tackles V.I. Homelessness” below)

But despite its success and potential to ultimately save money, the program was not funded in the most recent V.I. budget and is now operating on fumes.

Reached by phone, Andrea Shillingford, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands,  struck an optimistic tone, saying she thought it would ultimately get support and the charity is working with several senators and the Department of Human Services to see what can be done.

"I think we will be able to work it out with the government” and Human Services Commissioner Vivian Ebbesen-Fludd, she said. "It looks fairly positive."

Despite a seemingly difficult clientele, including many with mental illness and some with additional substance abuse issue, nearly all of the clients have shown a lot of progress, she said.

"We have seen good progress with most of the clients." The landlords have been working with them as money has grown tight, and have been understanding of the complexities inherent with their clients, Shillingford said.

"They themselves understand the clients we deal with and know the clients will have issues. … If any issue comes up with the landlord, we will call housing specialists" to help address it, she said. But there have been very few problems.

"We had one client we had problems with and we were able to remove them from the apartment for awhile and place them in transitional housing for about three weeks, until he had a better idea of what expectations were," she said. "But since then we have had no problems with them.”

“Most of the clients have been very compliant and we have been working to find jobs for them,” Shillingford continued. “I think about two have jobs now.”

She added, “I think the community on the whole is starting to catch onto the program and understand its importance and is starting to work with us.”

Nearly all the clients have a dual diagnosis, with a mental health issue and also addiction problems, she said. But getting them into a stable environment has helped them begin to deal with their issues.

They take the clients to a medical clinic once a month, where they have a psychiatrist and mental health specialists, and "once we get them into the program, we find they will stay on their medications," she said.

One of the most difficult ideas behind the program for many to accept is that simply providing the services, without requiring the homeless client to be drug or alcohol free or compliant with medical programs first, is more effective, because the client is more likely to successfully address those problems after they are no longer homeless.

Police have been very understanding and cooperative, Shillingford said, but she added that Schneider Regional Medical Center has not, which is "one of our main concerns."

One client injured herself and police took her to the hospital. "We were hoping they would have kept her but they didn’t because they found drugs in her system. Even though it was a mentally ill patient, they said they could not keep her," Shillingford said.

Problems and all, in the end the clients are all people like everyone else, she said.

"Before I came to Catholic Charities, even if I should see them on the street, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what they go through on a daily basis. Now I’m able to understand this is just another person who is ill. It is somebody’s brother, father, mother or sister. And I think if people were more educated about mental illness, especially the family, they would do better. We find the clients who are most successful are those with family support," she said.

Seeing it begin to work on the ground, Shillingford said she believes it is important to keep it going. Now that it is up and running, the annual cost should be less than the $950,000 it took to both start and run the program, she said.

While Shillingford is optimistic, she said calls to senators and Human Services officials did not confirm that funding was likely.

Sen. Clifford Graham, who chairs the Finance Committee, which hears all appropriation bills, said he had heard from Catholic Charities and was sympathetic.

"It is something we are working… to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we also have to work with the executive branch on that, because it initially came from the executive," Graham said.

The V.I. government still has a budget shortfall "somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million," Graham said. And while there were plans to fill the gap by restructuring debt, and a new concession agreement for the Hovensa facility may ease those problems and bring in new revenue, there are also major unsolved fiscal issues, from funding the territory’s hospitals to fixing the Government Employee Retirement System.

"The next step would be an appropriation bill," Graham said. "But I can’t say at this time if an appropriation bill is planned at this juncture," he said.

Calls to Human Services officials were referred to Deputy Human Services Commissioner Duane Howell, who did not respond to messages left Monday and Tuesday.

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