When nonprofit representatives testified at a Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services hearing Thursday, they told senators all is not well at the Department of Human Services. Heads of half a dozen entities that perform services for the department said they are not getting paid.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens told Felecia Blyden, acting commissioner of Human Services, “Don’t try to make things look good when we know they are not.”
Kim Nosek, who has served as the director of treatment services for the Village Virgin Islands Partners in Recovery for the past 13 years, said DHS owes the program almost $300,000.
The Village initially set up as a residential substance abuse treatment program in 1989, but now provides other behavioral health services including parenting programs, school programs and mental health care in the prison. Nosek said, “Many of these wonderful programs have not been sustainable because the funding has not been sustained.”
Carolyn Forno, assistant director of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix said DHS owes her organization $270,000 for services, and no contracts are in place for the present year. She added, “We continue to do the work.”
The Coalition has been serving victims of crime since 1981. It was initially founded to help and advocate on behalf of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. It has expanded over the years to provide services to victims of all crime.
In 2018, the Coalition helped 1,800 victims of crime.
Malik Stridiron, program director of Ten Thousand Helpers of St. Croix, said, “Receipt of funds from the Department of Human Services is a grave concern.” He explained DHS is its major funding source. Ten Thousand Helpers has not received a payment from DHS for two quarters and this puts the program in jeopardy of not paying utilities and salaries and ultimately closing.
Ten Thousand Helpers, established in 2002, focuses on homeless, mentally-ill men who sometimes have substance abuse issues. Its mission is to transition them back into society within 18 months.
Several representatives of nonprofit organizations said the problem causing late DHS payments could be the lack of staffing at DHS.
Acting Commissioner Blyden said in her testimony earlier in the afternoon that keeping a full-staff is her biggest challenge. She said the department has 87 vacancies.
Sen. Alicia Barnes, however, indicated she thinks the process for contracts with the nonprofits should be streamlined. She said memorandums of understanding might replace the contracts and make the process smoother. She also said that an effort might be made concerning the Economic Development Commission program that mandates charitable contributions from companies receiving tax breaks be prioritized to give these nonprofits more access to that money. Presently the companies choose how they wish to fulfill the charitable obligation.
Many of the senators’ questions during Blyden’s portion of the hearing concerned the operation of the Youth Rehabilitation Center (YRC) on St. Croix. Senators expressed concern that DHS had no data on what happens to youths after they left YRC.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw said, “If you don’t have any data you are wasting my time.” She also asked Blyden whether she was looking at restructuring the department because, “It is not working.”
Sen. Oakland Benta, Sr., committee chairman, said, “While we fumble the ball, our young souls are lost.”
Gittens was also concerned about DHS office space after the hurricanes. Blyden said the department was actively looking into getting modular buildings. Gittens asked, “The storms were 18 months ago; is it going to be another 18 months before you get them?”
Sen. Alison DeGazon questioned how far back DHS owed daycare centers servicing DHS. She said she heard some of them had not been paid since October of last year and were struggling to stay open.
While no one appeared ready to place the blame for DHS problems at the feet of one person, Sen. Kurt Vialet was ready to blame one branch of government. He said the Legislature always appropriates the money DHS needs to pay for services the government can’t provide, but the executive branch always fails to implement the payments.
Clema S. Lewis, executive director of the Women’s Coalition, suggested the Virgin Islands government establish a homeless shelter on St. Croix, support rent control policy (she said locals were being forced out of their homes by landlords who can charge much more to temporary workers), and fully staff a mental health department.
Aminah Saleem, vice-president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the senators, “It is critical that we establish reliable access to inpatient and outpatient services in our community, especially since the inpatient psychiatric unit in the Juan F. Luis Hospital is closed and there is a growing need for adequate outpatient services within the Virgin Islands Department of Health, especially for members of our community who are not insured. It is critical that a behavioral health care facility is established on the island of St. Croix to help individuals receive the care they need within their own community.”