Published: Feb 10, 2022

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services chaired by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building. Lawmakers receive testimony on the status of the Virgin Islands Department of Health on behavioral health in the Territory and the Federal funds earmarked for public health through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA). Separately, the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services (DHS) provided an update on senior residences and services, and senators weighed in on possible strategies to reduce homelessness in the territory.
Sen. Francis indicated that the Virgin Islands is in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. When it comes to mental health, the Territory is in a state of urgency. It is critical to address this issue.
The Virgin Islands Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion shared an update on behavioral health. Presently, the Division of Behavioral Health, Alcoholism, and Drug Dependency Services (BHADD) continues to provide health services such as case management and oversight to 246 patients territory wide. Encarnacion noted that the Community Resiliency Project, which addresses crisis intervention on general community mental health-related issues, contacted a total of 29,111 people. Out of that, 19,501 people received supportive care, 9,015 utilized group counseling as well as public education, and 595 individuals received counseling services.
Regarding outpatient clinics, Encarnacion stated that 452 people are receiving services; 29 are at the Eldra Schulterbrandt in the St. Thomas-St. John District and 20 at the Club House in the St. Croix District. Additionally, BHADD monitors the treatment of 39 patients at residential facilities on the mainland, and the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections transferred four patients to DOH and DHS for specified treatment. Encarnacion mentioned that the lack of staff remains a major challenge. Nonetheless, some of DOH’s accomplishments are inclusive of expanding behavioral telehealth services, providing grief counseling due to the sudden loss of a loved one, and collaborating with VITEMA to implement the Nation Suicide Hotline initiative.
Policymakers were also updated on the American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus bill to assist with economic recovery and to mitigate the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Virgin Islands. Encarnacion noted that ARPA funds earmarked for public health were allocated to approximately twenty DOH programs and services. Some of them are behavioral health and drug dependency services, substance abuse, mental health, maternal health, epidemiology/laboratory work, and strengthening healthcare associated with infections and antibiotic resistance.

Separately, the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services Commissioner, Kimberly Causey-Gomez, shared an update on DHS programs and services during the first quarter of FY 2022. To date, the Meals on Wheels Nutrition Program assisted 824 clients who were served 55,538 hot meals. Similarly, the Division of Disabilities and Rehabilitation Services assisted 275 people. Out of that, a total of 45 participants achieved competitive employment based on their tailored plan for employment. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the elderly population, Causey-Gomez mentioned that visits to senior homes such as the Home for the Aged remain restricted and many of the residents have been vaccinated and received the booster shot.
Lastly, the HUD mandated USVI Point in Time Count discovered that there was a total of 174 homeless people who were counted, and of those, 111 were unsheltered in 2021. According to Causey-Gomez, this is a decrease compared to the 2019 count of 314 homeless people, 232 unsheltered, and 82 chronically homeless.
The Committee also received testimony from Malik Stridiron, Executive Director of 10,000 Helpers and St. Thomas residents Lesley Commissiong and Maria Ferreras on the state of homelessness in the territory and the need for a collaborative approach to address this complex issue.
Committee members have requested that the Department of Human Services be invited back to the committee to more extensively address those areas they found to have operational gaps in programs and services.
The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Chief Disaster Recovery Officer Dayna Clendinen added that the findings from a gap analysis conducted in 2019 determined that 500 units of permanent supportive housing paired with wrap-around services and applicable support systems are required to assist in alleviating the homeless population in the Virgin Islands. Territory-wide, there are a total of 20 existing emergency housing units in need of repairs. Clendinen stated that the emergency housing unit repairs are inclusive of renovation of interior space, lead and asbestos testing, and reconstruction. The Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Community Development Block Grant is funding the repairs.
Senators attending today’s meeting: Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Genevieve R. Whitaker, Kurt A. Vialet, Samuel Carrión, Carla J. Joseph, Marvin A. Blyden, Alma Francis Heyliger, Steven D. Payne, Sr., Janelle K. Sarauw, and Kenneth L. Gittens.

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