Lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss the status of the Department of Human Services and to address homelessness in the territory but left feeling frustrated.
Senate Pres. Donna Frett-Gregory told the chairman that the “issues that are occurring in Human Services are very telling on the social issues that we are having in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
Sen. Frett-Gregory requested that the DHS meet before the legislative body on a monthly basis in order to ensure that they “get their act together.”
Other senators felt frustrated with responses that were given from the DHS as well.
“I am sitting here a little annoyed,” said Sen. Alma Francis-Heyliger. “All I’m hearing is excuses, and stories, and runarounds.”
Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez testified before legislators and gave an extensive overview of the DHS and its services. However, senators felt that the commissioner neglected to provide substantial information about the activities of the DHS. The need for social workers and other challenges that are causing backlog and delays were noted as important information that legislators wanted to hear.
Pertaining to the issue of homelessness, legislators sought testimony from both the DHS and the Housing Finance Authority to look for ways to alleviate the increasing number of affected individuals.
Research conducted in 2019 revealed to the VIHFA that close to 500 housing units would be required to meet the housing needs of residents and alleviate the number of homeless individuals in the territory.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw referenced a constituent who applied for emergency rental assistance and, due to the delay in processing, the constituent was required to reside in a hotel. However, being that they “have a roof over their head” as a result of essentially living in the hotel, they are unable to be processed expeditiously to receive rental assistance.
The HFA has approximately 700 applicants for the emergency rental assistance program and has paid $1.5 million of $39 million dollars allocated to the program. Senators expressed disdain over the backlog of applications that have yet to be processed by the VIHFA.
Pertaining to the DHS, it was unclear about the number of vacancies that need to be filled in order to allow the department to operate more effectively. When asked by Sen. Samuel Carrion the number of social workers the department has employed and how many they need, Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin told legislators that 15 social workers were employed by the department. Commissioner Causey-Gomez then blurted out, “100, I need for every single program,” and received much contempt from senators about jesting about the vacancies.
“We should have those numbers. We’re here for overview of the departments,” said Sen. Carrion.
Sen. Gittens inquired as to why the DHS has not hired anyone for the position of social worker within the last 24 months, to which Causey-Gomez replied that one vacancy was posted but did not remain posted due to a glitch with the Division of Personnel.
Sens. Novelle Francis, Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Genevieve Whitaker, Kurt Vialet, Samuel Carrión, Carla Joseph, Marvin Blyden, Alma Francis- Heyliger, Steven Payne, Sr., Janelle Sarauw, and Kenneth Gittens were present.