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Homelessness Persists When Holiday Spotlight Turns Off

Nov. 21, 2007 — As Thanksgiving and Christmas come around each year, thoughts turn to the less fortunate. There are Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless and a brief flurry of media attention. But who are the homeless in the Virgin Islands?
A point-in-time count March 10 found 487 homeless people in the territory. It was conducted by several charitable organizations in cooperation with Human Services and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. There were 96 homeless on St. Croix and 304 on St. Thomas.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Chris Finch, commissioner of Human Services, said he participated in the St. Croix count last year. Organizers tried to be extremely thorough, he said, but the number may be higher.
"I think the numbers are on the low side," Finch said. "You cannot be sure you've found everyone."
The count finds only those living on the street, leaving out many who are under a roof but without any security, he said.
"To me there are two sides to homelessness," Finch said. "One is on the streets where we see it. It tends to be men, mostly. Drug use and mental illness play a strong role in those. But we don't see women and women with children who are 'couch surfing,' as they say. They don't talk because being where they are is often a violation of the lease, and they don't want to draw attention to themselves. But they still don't have any place they can count on and are in a high-risk situation."
The visible, mostly male, homeless population found and counted actually living on the street in the territory amounts to a bit less than half a percent of the V.I. population as measured in the last census.
In 2005, about a quarter of one percent of Americans were homeless any given day — roughly 750,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Homelessness is connected to income and nationwide among those defined as "poor." Nearly 10 percent of Americans experienced at least a single night of homelessness over the past year.
As with the rest of the country and the world at large, mental illness and substance abuse play major roles. Of the 487 homeless counted in March, substance abuse was listed as a factor for 289, or 60 percent. Mental illness was listed in 145 instances — nearly one in three. HIV/AIDS and domestic violence are factors to a lesser extent.
Seventy-one, or 15 percent of the homeless counted on the street, were women.
The much larger number of homeless counted on St. Thomas stands out. The count may reflect a higher rate of homelessness, or it may not, Finch said.
"It may be that housing is that much more difficult to get in St. Thomas," Finch said. "But St. Thomas had many more volunteers doing the counting. It may be there is no difference, just more were counted on St. Thomas. Or it may be more difficult to find housing."
Homelessness is inherently difficult to count, Finch said.
"There are a lot of reasons for not identifying oneself as homeless," he said.
It is hard to get work if you're homeless. A person might sit in a fast food restaurant without ordering and attract no attention. But if they appear homeless, they may be ejected, Finch said, citing one of several examples. He recalled two car-washing individuals he knew on St. Croix. One lived in an abandoned building and the other often slept on the sidewalk, but sometimes stayed with relatives. Neither considered themselves homeless, Finch said.
When a half dozen St. Croix residents were asked on the street at random Wednesday for their view on homelessness, all said they would favor more government spending on the issue.
"I'd like to see more services for the homeless," said Dwayne Thomas of Frederiksted. "They need a facility with space to take the homeless to. Right now it is the Department of Corrections that ends up dealing with it, and they just are not equipped for that."
While the holidays focus attention briefly on the plight of the less fortunate, those who provide services for the homeless say it is a struggle to keep that attention and that level of charity going the rest of the year.
"This is a time of year a lot of organizations stop and do take notice and help provide," said Edith Moore of the charitable organization Ten Thousand Helpers of St. Croix. "On this one week the homeless will look a little pudgier because everyone is feeding them. But the rest of the year we need to remember they are still out there and still need help."
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