June 4, 2006 – Housed in a small office building across the street from Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School, Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands (CCVI) has a big job to do – in addition to running community housing shelters on St. Thomas and St. Croix, the organization also operates soup kitchens and mobile outreach centers and conducts home visits to assist elderly residents throughout the territory.
"We're also very much about advocacy," Michael Akin, executive director of CCVI said. "We work with other organizations and agencies to create access to a host of services, in addition to providing whatever services we can. So, we pull all those things together in the territory – that is the very important role I see Catholic Charities playing in our community."
He explained that the organization encompasses several different programs, including the Bethlehem House shelters on both St. Thomas and St. Croix. "The facility we have here in St. Thomas can accommodate about 40 men, women and children, while on St. Croix we can now only accommodate women and children," he said, adding that the organization is in the process of receiving federal money from the community development block grant to expand its St. Croix site.
Akin said a "mixed bag" of residents live in the shelters, including victims of crime or domestic violence, or overcrowding. However, a majority of the shelters' population – especially in St. Croix – are residents who are waiting for government housing or housing assistance. "The male dorm at the shelter in St. Thomas is also full," he said. "So, clearly we are also trying to meet that need as well."
"However, I also need to stress that we can't just take a person off the street who's using drugs and alcohol and put them in the shelter. Residents need to know that we are a safe, dry place – not a facility where's it's okay to do those kinds of things," Akin added.
The organization's soup kitchens, located on all three islands, also serve a number of residents and double as community outreach centers where food and clothing can be donated and distributed, Akin said.
"Additionally, we've begun running mobile centers on St. Thomas and St. Croix," he explained. "We put the food and clothing in the back of a truck and take it to where we know the people are. And the purpose of this initiative is to reach out to those individuals who don't go to our facilities. Because what we've noticed is that we're really getting the same people showing up to eat at the soup kitchen, and that makes us wonder, 'Where is everyone else? Where are they going?'"
He said that a local census conducted in 2005 by a group of various agencies revealed that a number of homeless individuals on St. Thomas are either male, substance abusers or residents suffering from mental illness. "The majority are found in the downtown area," Akin said. "So our van on St. Thomas primarily travels between the Contant, Market Square, Hospital Ground and Vitraco Park Mall areas."
"However, we are starting to see – much like with the soup kitchens – that the same people are starting to come to the van. So the challenge on St. Thomas is that we really haven't been able to get into certain populations who may need our help, like in the Smith Bay and Bovoni areas. "
"But, these traveling centers also give us an opportunity to observe and assist," Akin added. "If a person's health is deteriorating, for example, we will offer to get them to a clinic or call emergency services to come and help them. It's the same on St. Croix – but since we've just started the service over there, our challenge is to meet the need, both in terms of staff and money because it has been growing."
The Catholic Charities mobile outreach on St. Croix is based out of its soup kitchen in Christiansted but travels at least once a week through Fredericksted. On St. Thomas, the van is based out of the facility at Hospital Ground. While St. John does not yet have a mobile outreach center, Akin said, the soup kitchen in Cruz Bay is open one day a week.
CCVI is a not-for-profit that operates within the Catholic Diocese of the Virgin Islands. It is also a United Way agency and partners with other local organizations.
The organization receives money from federal grants and local funding through the Department of Human Services, along with donations from the community.
For more information on Catholic Charities or to become a volunteer, call 777-8518 for St. Thomas-St. John or 773-0132 on St. Croix.
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