St. John resident Margaret McNally, 53, has fallen on hard times. She has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a lung disease usually referred to as COPD that makes breathing difficult. She had to give up her job as a house cleaner, and now she’s couch surfing with friends so she doesn’t have to sleep outside.
She was one of many people on hand Friday for the second annual Day of Caring: Project Homeless Connect that aims to link up residents without permanent homes with social services to help them.
“It’s nice to come to one place,” she said, speaking about the ability to walk from table to table rather than trek around Cruz Bay or even to St. Thomas for assistance.
She did have one wish. She’d like a place to take showers and do laundry on a regular basis instead of just at Project Homeless Connect.
In addition to showers, clients received meals, medical services, clothes, and assistance from various social service agencies.
Daniel Aponte-Ramos is the San Juan-based homeless and minority program coordinator for the federal Veterans Affairs Department. He said he’s working with local organizations to identify homeless veterans so they can receive services.
The Council on Alcoholism St. Thomas/St. John was also on hand to distribute information.
“We are hoping those who have problems come in and find out where to get help,” Sherol Sanderson said.
Project Homeless is sponsored by United Way St. Thomas/St. John and the Human Services Department, and heads of both were on hand.
Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch, in a far-reaching interview with the Source, talked about the causes and solutions to homelessness and the importance of Project Homeless Connect. He said that many homeless people have a hard time accessing services but at Project Homeless Connect, what would take them weeks of effort can be done in one day.
“And in a stress free setting,” he said.
He said Project Homeless Connect gives people from grass roots organizations a chance to meet those who work for departments and agencies that provide services so when they need to make referrals they know where to go. And Finch said it brings volunteers into the fold of helping other.
St. John seems to have a large share of homeless people who arrived from the mainland. Finch said such women end up homeless because a promised romantic relationship fell through.
“Men come because of a promise of a job,” he said.
Some of those jobs materialize but when the job ends, Finch said the person becomes homeless.
Finch said that his department pays the airfare back to the mainland for about 15 people a year from across the territory. He said this is a one-time event for the people and only happens when the department locates someone on the mainland to take them in. He said the department does it because the one-way plane ticket is cheaper than paying for emergency room visits.
United Way Director Cherise Creque Quain said the reasons why people are homeless on St. Thomas and St. Croix are consistent and relate to mental illness and substance abuse.
“Less than 10 percent don’t have the money to pay rent,” she said.
The reasons why people on St. John are homeless is being studied, Quain said.
She put the number of homeless across the territory at about 500.
Finch and Quain both spoke about a new endeavor that will be run by Catholic Charities on a contract with Human Services. Catholic Charities will pay the rent on studio apartments around St. Thomas for 40 homeless people. Staff will fan out around St. Thomas to assist clients.
“The staff is on the street. It’s not an office job,” Quain said.
She said she expects the number of clients who receive services at Project Homeless Connect to increase by about 10 percent over last year’s 60.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. said he was there to show support for those department and agency workers who set up shop at the Human Services building and parking lot and across the road at St. Ursula’s Episcopal Church hall.
Project Homeless Connect wouldn’t happen without the help of about 40 volunteers from St. John and St. Thomas, organizers said. Some said they found the volunteer duty very satisfying.
“I believe that in God’s eyes everyone is equal,” Westin Resort and Villas accounting department employee Rosemary Joseph said as she waited with fellow Westin employee Aaron Burris to greet clients.
Homeless Connect even had one a volunteer on vacation. Antigua resident Lonarine Cartwright is visiting her sister Joyce Bell, who works for United Way on St. Thomas. Cartwright said that the social issues were the same no matter where you were located.
“But the milk of human kindness flows throughout the world,” Cartwright said.