Undercurrents: Budget Crisis Slams the Door on ‘Home at Last’

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

It was an attempt to give the poorest of the poor and the chronic homeless more than a plate of food and a bed for the night. More than a shower and a change of clothes. More, even, than free health care.

But now the program is a victim of the territory’s ongoing budget crisis.

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The idea behind the Home At Last, Permanent Supportive Housing program was to give hope and dignity to people who had lost both of those things living on the streets of the Virgin Islands, and through intensive counseling, job training and a myriad of social services, to help them make their way back into society.

The V.I. Department of Human Services modeled Home at Last after similar programs that had proven successful in a number of stateside cities. The plan was “housing first” – placing individuals in their own, single-person apartments, and then having a team of social workers, mental health providers and other professionals meet and work with them on a regular basis.

After a bidding process, DHS chose Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands to manage the program, and, after many months of bureaucratic delays over the contract and the release of funds, the program finally launched in 2014.

But Home at Last was expensive, and within a couple of years, as the government slipped further and further into debt, its future was looking bleak.

The VI Daily News reported this week that the program has closed because of a lack of funding.

(Full disclosure: This columnist’s husband was CCVI’s long time executive director until his retirement two years ago.)

Catholic Charities Board Chairman Richard Bourne-Vanneck said Monday that Home at Last “came into the new fiscal year which started Oct. 1 without funding.”

Staff had been lobbying senators and executive branch officials for months and receiving promises, but no money. They cut back on the number of people in the program, but continued to run it.

In December, the Legislature passed a bill that appropriated $540,000 for the program “from any available funds at the Department of Human Services” Bourne-Vanneck said.

“When that happened, we thought it was a positive thing,” he said. But no money materialized, because, apparently, there are no available funds in DHS.

Felecia Blyden, DHS commissioner designee, told the Source Monday that she would “check on” the matter and call back before the end of the day. She did not call back.

“We were forced to terminate the program after running the program for four months out of other (funding) sources,” Bourne-Vanneck said.

Catholic Charities has spent approximately $250,000 for FY ’17 operations for Home at Last, he said.

Major expenses include salaries for the Act Team of professionals who work with the clients and housing, food and utility costs. Clients who receive social security, veterans’ benefits or other entitlements or who are employed may pay a portion of their expenses, but most are heavily or fully subsidized.

To continue to shoulder the cost for Home at Last would be to put CCVI’s other programs at risk, Bourne-Vanneck said. The charity operates the Bethlehem House homeless shelters as well as soup kitchens on St. Croix and St. Thomas, outreach services on all three islands and other programs.

“We feed hundreds of people every day, and shelter more than 100 people every night,” he said. “We have to be accountable to our clients … as a board, we had to be realistic.”

CCVI has actually been winding down Home at Last for about a month, according to Bourne-Vanneck. Most of the professional staff hired for the program have been let go, landlords were apprised that leases are being terminated, and there have been discussions with the Housing Authority, Lucinda Millin Home, and other entities to find alternative housing for the clients.

Home at Last was designed to serve up to 40 or 50 people at a time, Bourne-Vanneck said, but the numbers fluctuate and currently almost 30 are in the program.

“Andrea Shillingford (CCVI executive director) and her staff have been working very hard” to make the transition as smooth as possible, he said.

While he expressed sadness that Home at Last is closing, he said other government-funded programs, including the shelters and soup kitchens, are in the DHS budget.

He said he hopes that Permanent Supportive Housing will be reinstated “somewhere down the line” but understands that “there’s very little cash available to support this program” right now.

“We’re all part of this society, and we have to do the best we can with the resources we have.”

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