June 1, 2005 — Thanks to a territory-wide census of the homeless conducted earlier this month, the V.I. Government and nonprofit organizations that work with homeless people say they are getting a better picture of who the homeless are. However, one figure was surprising to at least one nonprofit director: namely, the 64 to 70 homeless children counted by volunteers.
The census was taken on May 21. According to Laurence Joshua of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, work is still being done to tally the information collected by census takers who completed roughly 350 surveys of people living on the street.
"We had about 320 persons that we actually counted, but we want to be perfectly clear that this is not the total number of homeless persons in the territory. What this number represents is the number of homeless who were not in shelters at that particular time," Joshua said Tuesday. "We don't think we got the entire population of unsheltered persons."
Figures provided on Wednesday by Louise Petersen, director of the Methodist Training and Outreach Center of St. Thomas, updated the number of surveys turned in to 354.
The information gathered is being compiled this week into a report to be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to keep the territory eligible for housing and housing-related federal funds and services. That includes services for the homeless.
"It's the first time that the territory has done such an extensive survey like this," said Michael Akin, executive director for Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. Catholic Charities provides services for the homeless, including a temporary shelter and soup kitchens. Akin said he, too, doubts the 320 people surveyed in the census represent the entire population of homeless people in the Virgin Islands, but he said he hopes subsequent efforts will produce a more accurate count.
Akin said some Catholic Charities workers helped collect the information, a relatively easy process since the workers are familiar faces who serve the homeless on a daily basis. The profile that emerged is a preliminary one, but one he said he recognized: disorganized lives influenced by mental illness and sometimes drug or alcohol abuse.
"That tells us that one of the great needs in our territory is for increased substance abuse treatment centers and increased mental health treatment centers," Akin said.
Akin also said he was surprised by the number of children who were identified as homeless and initially not included in the count. According to Petersen, the initial figures included heads of households, but the numbers were later expanded to included everyone in the household.
"The families we found with children were the folks found in the hills. They do not consider themselves homeless but according to HUD's definition they are living in some cases without electricity and running water," Petersen said.
The majority of homeless children living with their parents or guardians could be found on St. Croix, she said. On St. Thomas, there were certain areas where such families were found by census takers, including Bordeaux, Smith Bay and Savan. Petersen said many families were reluctant to admit they had children because they were worried that the Department of Human Services would find them and take their children away.
Petersen also noted a small number of extreme cases. One family with children was found living in a car. Another was moving from place to place, trying to flee a domestic violence situation. Other children were in families whose parents abused alcohol or drugs.
There were no instances where census volunteers found children under 18 living on the streets by themselves, she said, although there were a number of young adults.
Sharing information with the federal government about these families, Petersen said, will hopefully lead to expanded services that will help them meet their needs. She also said there's a lesson for the public as they learn more about the face of homelessness in the Virgin Islands.
"By doing this [learning more], the community would look up and see that homelessness is not just the stinky guy on the streets or people who are on drugs. There is more to it than that, and we are hoping we can get the attention of the people in the mainstream organizations, the people in the government areas — local and federal — that would be able to extend to us the finances and the facilities so we can end this problem of homelessness by 2012, as is requested by the federal government," Petersen said.
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