Somewhere on St. Thomas there is a man or woman who just may see his or her life take a dramatic change next month, with a program offering the basics of human dignity.
The people who are chronically homeless, street people, those without a roof over their heads – this population is the target group for Permanent Supportive Housing, a pilot program aimed at helping people return to mainstream society.
The exciting and ambitious project is a first for the territory, though the concept has swept the United States in the last 10 years and has been hugely successful.
In partnership with the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services and operated under a $950,000 grant from local funds, Catholic Charities of the V.I. has launched the program with the idea to provide individuals with their own apartments and whatever social, health, and counseling services they should need to become as independent as possible on a permanent basis.
"I know it can work," said Michael Akin on Wednesday, and Akin should know. He has years of hands-on experience. Catholic Charities has focused its services on the homeless for many years.
On both St. Thomas and St. Croix, it manages the Bethlehem House shelters, offering short-term group housing to people experiencing financial setbacks; it operates soup kitchens on both islands and outreach services to homeless people throughout the territory; and it offers rental and utilities assistance to persons in danger of becoming homeless.
Akin has the passion to persevere and the program will require every bit of that. It’s challenging in all aspects, Akin said, but he is firm in his faith. "Too many of us tend to look the other way when a so-called ‘street person’ passes by," he said. "The tendency is to write them off as a hopeless cause rather than to see the innate dignity that exists in all of us."
And that dignity is what the program offers for 40 chronically homeless St. Thomas clients, until they are sufficiently independent. "The whole concept is a cadre of qualified professionals who can assist the clients in day-to-day issues, for instance, grocery shopping." Right now, Akin said, his main challenges are assembling what is called the Assertive Community Treatment Team and finding the housing.
The team is key to the project’s success. "We are looking for four people with the right background,” he said, clarifying those are social workers, mental and physical health experts, and labor and housing specialists who will work with each of the participants. “We haven’t found the perfect fit yet,” adding that they “need qualified people who are willing to get out on the street, to get close to the clients who need to be served.”
Akin clarified that they “don’t have the staff for a professional for each client. That is where the team comes in,” he said.
"We don’t have the SSI program like the states, which is a drawback," he said. "We have to rely on our existing health and mental health programs, like the monthly Bethlehem House clinic."
The organization is reviewing a dozen resumes in preparation for interviews next week, he said, for all positions of ACT team including social work, housing, case management, program coordination, mental health and substance abuse.
The ACT team will determine client eligibility for financial assistance, veterans and social security benefits, and pensions, he said.
The program hinges on one word: permanent. This is not a program that places people and then walks away. Akin said, "I learned a long time ago that the decline in homelessness in the states is in the permanent support programs."
The program has been a while coming. Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch said Wednesday, "Several years ago this person who called himself the ‘Homeless Czar’ came here and told us about permanent housing programs that were having great success in the states in reducing the homeless populations. It would be much more difficult to do here, but we never forgot about it.”
Finch said, "People like Michael Akin who attended conferences would tell stories of programs he had observed. I heard the mayors of Denver and of Miami talk of the positive impact of the program in cities and stories of programs in tiny little villages. So it works in rural and urban areas. We thought, why not try it for the Virgin Islands, and thank God, we are finally able to do so."
"The goal is to work with a total of 40 chronic homeless and really focus on the people in town," Finch said. "If people in town see that this is making a difference, they will support us.”
“We want people to see this is making a difference. With a year’s funding, you have to start thinking almost from the beginning. If people see this is making an impact there will be support so we can continue and expand.”
"Many programs are aimed at keeping people alive, with food and shelter," Finch said, "but that doesn’t reduce homelessness, and that is our goal." Akin stressed that the clients will have someone to turn to every day from the ACT team. Help is always available, he said.
Though Akin and Finch have decades of experience between them, you would never find a bureaucrat lurking underneath either of their skin. They both bring the fresh anticipation of a later day Andy Hardy once they begin to talk about their goal – homeless no more.
Catholic Charities is also in search of housing units, specifically efficiencies and studio apartments, under $650 a month. The organization will lease from the landlord and, as the clients become increasingly independent, they will accept responsibility for maintaining housing with limited supportive services.
Approximately one third of the client income will be applied toward the rent. Gov. John deJongh Jr. reacted to the development of the program with promise. "The Permanent Supportive Housing project proves the issue of homelessness in the territory can be resolved through public and private partnership as efforts to meet the direst needs continue," he said.