Homelessness Is Community Responsibility, DeNova Tells AARP

V.I. Division of Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services Assistant Director Elsie DeNova speaks to the St. John AARP.

The problems of homelessness, mental illness and emotional disturbance are the responsibility of the community.

This is the message V.I. Division of Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services Assistant Director Elsie DeNova shared with members of the St. John AARP chapter at the group’s Thursday evening, April 18, meeting at the Nazareth Lutheran Church.

“The solution must come from the community,” said DeNova. “Think about where you see yourself fitting in.”

The division oversees several different services in the territory, including outpatient mental health services; substance abuse services, including a methadone maintenance treatment program on St. Croix; and maintaining data on those affected by mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction.

No Hospitalization
AARP members shared their own personal experiences with mental illness.

One woman discussed her frustration with obtaining services locally for her mentally ill brother, while another woman shared the success story of her mentally ill sister, whose condition improved after she was institutionalized in the states.

“We don’t have hospitalization here,” said DeNova. “We only offer outpatient services from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and after five, everything shuts down.”

There is a nurse to address substance abuse and mental health issues on an outpatient basis at the Morris deCastro clinic, according to DeNova.

An unusually high amount of homeless people live on St. John, which has the least services for the homeless and mentally ill, explained DeNova.

Improvements Needed
“In a recent count, there were 87 homeless people on St. John, which is a disparate figure,” she said. “St. John is not playing with a full deck of cards right now, but it’s on its way up. If I were to rate the services right now, it would be St. Croix first, then St. Thomas and St. John.”

There are several improvements that could be made in the territory’s mental health and substance abuse services, explained DeNova.

“I long for 24-hour crisis intervention,” she said. “With today’s technology, that doesn’t have to mean someone sitting at a desk in an office. Why aren’t we doing that?”

The territory could also benefit from a crisis hotline and more volunteers, explained DeNova.

Hotline, Volunteers Needed
“With a hotline, you can reach a person who is about to break and you can change that,” she said. “We also need volunteers. To be a volunteer from the heart, you’ve got to be serious, and schooled in what you are doing.”

At least two hospital beds are needed for those who decide to undergo withdrawal from alcohol, which can often be a very painful, and sometimes fatal, process.

“It’s a crippling effort undertaking withdrawal from alcohol,” said DeNova. “I long to see one or two beds in the hospitals dedicated to this process. We need this.”

Drug addiction, along with several other factors, can lead to homelessness, DeNova told the local AARP chapter.

“Who is at risk?” she said. “Youth, veterans, teen mothers, substance abusers, the emotionally challenged, the mentally ill, the elderly, the unemployed and illegal aliens. It’s a big enough problem that we need to work steadfastly to render services to the best of our ability.”

Community Problem
The Division of Mental Health can’t do it alone, explained DeNova.

“I can’t do it all,” she said. “The Division of Mental Health can’t do it alone, and we shouldn’t have to. It’s a community problem.”

DeNova urged the local AARP chapter to incorporate education in its upcoming Day of Service on May 10, when it will distribute food, water and toiletries to the local homeless population.

“I long to see the day we don’t point, laugh and make fun of people,” said DeNova. “Heavy on my heart is education. People are still insulting others, so this is one critical area of need.”