Homelessness in the U.S. Virgin Islands is in a crisis that could get worse as resources from the federal government dwindle, members of the Senate Committee on Housing, Public Works, Waste Management and Planning were told Wednesday.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Marvin Bryden, met Wednesday at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall to receive updates on homelessness and pub;lic housing in the community, according to the Legislature’s Office of Public Affairs.
Louise Peterson, executive director of the Methodist Training and Outreach Center and president of the V.I. Continuum of Care, called the problem a “revolving-door crisis,” attributing it to to a variety of underlying, unmet physical, economical, and social needs.
The Continuum of Care program was designed to promote community-wide goals to end homelessness; provide funding to quickly rehouse homeless individuals including unaccompanied youths and families while minimizing trauma and dislocation to those people; promote access to, and effective utilization of mainstream programs; and optimize self-sufficiency among individuals and families experiencing homelessness The program is composed of transitional housing, permanent housing, supportive services, and the Homeless Management Information Services.
On Jan. 27 the COC conducted the required count of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless in the territory. The unsheltered homeless reflected an unduplicated total of 30, individuals, and the sheltered homeless shows 66 individuals. The 2017 demographics of the homeless population has remained relatively consistent with previous counted years, with 90 percent of the homeless Blacks/African Americans and 96 percent of the homeless males.
But within that fairly consistent demographic, there has been a change, she said.
“The population that is increasing in homelessness are ages 0-17. They are categorized under youths without parents or unaccompanied minors. On St. Thomas, there are 39 individuals, 15 on St. John and seven on St. Croix,” Petersen said.
Andrea Shillingford, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, which provides services to the homeless and poor in the territory through its shelters, soup kitchens and street outreach programs that serve approximately 800 persons annually.
Homeless individuals and families that reach out to Catholic Charities for assistance often have endured severe hardships, such as eviction from housing by relatives or friends, job loss, family disputes, illness, physical, sexual and emotional trauma, and hunger, Shillingford told the lawmakers. Most of these hardships can be attributed to a limited education.
People who come to Catholic Charities start out with an emergency period of 30 days. Once they are initially stabilized they can begin to address many of the underlying problems that may have led to their homelessness.
“We continue to have discussions with the Virgin Islands Housing Authority to determine the availability of appropriate housing units for those participating in the Home at Last program,” Shillingford added.
Robert Graham, CPM and executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority, said the VIHA is enthusiastic to partner with all stakeholders who desire to work together to improve the living conditions of Virgin Islanders. The VIHA Transition Agreement Action Plan was designed by HUD to ensure the sustainability of the authority and address any unresolved performance and compliance deficiencies, he said.
“Since several tasks required more time to complete than the original document allowed, HUD extended the timeline to complete unresolved tasks. Although VIHA expects to significantly complete the tasks during the extension period, the enhanced monitoring by HUD will continue through the HUD report card called Public Housing Assessment System. Currently, VIHA has a score of 77 on HUD’s PHAS report card,” Graham said.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, will experience a $300 million reduction according to recent reports on the federal budget. Coupled with rent increases, this could result in the loss of thousands of vouchers and threaten currently housed families with homelessness. VIHA receives approximately $14 million annually that provides housing assistance to approximately 1,600 families and seniors. If the average annual subsidy is $9,000 per household, the U.S.V.I. could lose 111 families for every $1 million in subsidy cuts to the voucher program. Currently, more than 838 landlords participate in the program.
The public housing operating fund covers day-to-day operational and maintenance expenses not covered by resident rents. The reported cut to HUD’s operating fund of $600 million is a 13 percent reduction from last year’s funding, and approximately 72 percent of what is needed. However, for VIHA the operating budget is $25 million in two components, $21 million in federal funding and $4 million from tenant rent. Thus, a 13 percent reduction in HUD operating funding would reduce VIHA’s operating budget by $2.7 million.
More than $333 million is needed to effectively operate and maintain the old public housing inventory,Graham said. Through the Capital fund program, the authority has $11.4 million available, with $6.7 million expended for capital projects and operations.
Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen urged the VIHA to resume its once vigorous approach to clean up the communities overrun with criminal activity and efforts to make the residents safer.
“The residents of William’s Delight are living in fear. Students have to walk through vacant places like Chabert, totally unprotected, just to get their education,” she said.
Daryl Griffith, acting executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, said there is a serious need for more emergency and affordable housing within the territory.
The meeting concluded with a brief summarization of the VIHFA’s second amendment to its three-year plan. The measure will be presented at a later time.