Homelessness on Guam has dropped by 21.47 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the latest Point in Time data released by the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority. The road junctions and street landscape on island, however, tell a different story.
Neon vest-clad panhandlers, holding cardboard signs that read “Homeless, Please Help Me,” have become as ubiquitous as political billboards that read “Vote for Me.” Some station themselves in public places, guarding their carts that contain all their life belongings. Still others are the stereotypical aimless wanderers, who rest by nightfall wherever their feet decide to take them.
On any given night on Guam, there are hundreds of people sleeping rough at public places that provide a semblance of shelter and security.
Despite the available programs that seek to address homelessness on Guam, the problem persists, along with the reasons that cause such predicament. “Common factors include family breakups, unemployment, mental disabilities and substance abuse,” said Amor Urquico Say, a planner at GHURA. “There is rampant substance abuse on Guam and oftentimes, these people with substance abuse problems get kicked out of their homes. Some families don’t want to take care of members with disabilities.”
The 2017 PIT count found a total of 259 households with a combined total of 852 adults and children. Households with only adults have an average size of 1.5 while households with adults and children have an average size of 5.4. Of the 259 households identified, 55 percent were households with adults only. There were no children only households identified, according to the PIT count report recently released by GHURA. There were 117 households or 45 percent found living in tents, abandoned buildings and parks.
The new count shows a decline from more than 1,000 in 2015. “One factor contributing to the decrease in 2017 is a change in the definition of who is not to be included in the PIT Count,” the PIT Count report states. “The changes exclude individuals residing in permanent supportive housing projects in locations not listed on the Homeless Inventory Count, or in housing legitimately rented or owned, including rental housing with Rapid Re-Housing assistance.”
The new tally, for example, excluded a large number of previously counted people who live in the Gil Baza and Zero Down Subdivisions as well as those on Chamorro Land Trust. “These areas were included in previous PIT Counts due to meeting the definition of inadequate housing,” the report says.
Neon vest-clad panhandlers, holding cardboard signs that read “Homeless, Please Help Me,” have become as ubiquitous as political billboards that read “Vote for Me.”
Another factor contributing to the decrease was the inability of the survey teams to locate the homeless individuals, who previously clustered around construction sites that have since been cleared. “As such, the street homeless became a more mobile group seeking different sites for their sleeping site,” the report says.
Others have actually managed to get back on their feet. “The (Guam Homeless Coalition) was actively placing families with children and vulnerable individuals in housing through the Emergency Solutions Grant, or in permanent housing solutions such as public housing placements and use of Family Unification Program or shelter plus care vouchers,” the report says.
The fully federally funded GHURA provides funding to partner nonprofit organizations, which operate shelters that offer support services.
“For Section 8, we now have 2,000 vouchers,” Urquico Say said. “With Section 8, we don’t just have vouchers; we also provide subsidies to companies that are building homes for the low income, such as Core Tech’s Summer Town and Ironwood projects.”
While GHURA receives about $3 million a year through this block grant funding, Urquico Say said it’s not enough to pull every homeless off the streets.
A sexual assault on a minor living in abandoned home prompted women senators at the Guam Legislature to hold a roundtable discussion to examine the magnitude of homelessness on island and to look into the possibility of adding an emergency shelter.
Linda Rodriguez, administrator of the Department of Public Health and Social Services Bureau of Social Services Administration, acknowledged that — despite statistics indicating otherwise —"we see homelessness rising and child abuse cases rising."
Vice Speaker Therese Terlaje noted that most shelters, such as Guam San Jose and Alee Shelter, are operating at maximum capacity. Rodriguez told senators hat providing additional services and another shelter to homeless families on Guam is imperative.
Urquico Says, however, is not holding her breath. “we have been through these legislative hearings before. It doesn’t really do anything,” she said. “There was a hearing last year, where Sen. Mike San Nicolas asked us how much it would cost to implement a program similar to Section 8 with local funds. We said it would cost $8 million, but we didn’t hear back from the legislature.”
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded GHURA $20,015 in federal grant assistance for the Congregate Housing Service Program, which provides annual extension for the employment of service coordinators to assist multifamily housing developments designed for the elderly and persons with disabilities. The funding also covers the supportive service needed by frail and elderly residents and those with disabilities in federally subsidized housing.
Behind the homeless statistics are real people with crosses to bear and stories to tell. We spoke to some of them.
Greg and Christine Flores, with their three young children, are a familiar sight at the corner of Carlos Camacho Road and Farenholt Drive, where they hold out their hand, drawing a combination of sympathy, apathy and disdain. “We stand here for hours and we’re lucky if we make $25,” Greg Flores said. “People pass judgment on us but we do take care of our children. We make sure they are clean and they go to school; they go to Chief Brodie Elementary School.”
In the evening, the family retires at a pavilion in East Agana. The couple takes turns sleeping so that one takes watch while their children are asleep. Greg Flores, who claims to be grandson of the late Joseph Flores, said he lost a probate battle for a piece of property left by his grandfather in Ypao. Last year, he said his sister kicked him and his family of their home.
“I’ve tried to seek help from the governor’s office and then from GHURA but we were turned down,” he said. “I’ve tried to find a job but no one would hire me.”
A record with GHURA showed the Flores family stayed with Guma San Jose for six months.
Flores said his previous court case, though already expunged, continues to hound him and impede his chances at getting services and finding a job. His wife Christine finds no luck either. “I have applied for different jobs, even at mom-and-pop stores, and spent on transportation and paperwork, but I get a rejection each time,” she said.
“There is no justice,” Greg Flores said. “We don’t want to beg the government again after being turned away many times.”
“Jun,” a homeless man in his 60s, hangs out in the Dededo Community Center area. He is quiet and observant. He wears a sweatshirt on a drafty day that makes him blend and keeps him protected from the elements.
Jun came to Guam from the Philippines in the 1980s for work. He never had children or a wife. He lost his job in 1990s after getting injured at work . He has since been unable to work and unable to keep up with rent. He has been out in the streets for 20 years. He survives on bread and mom-and-pop snack foods and other donations that he get from people. He travels with everything he needed. “When people are happy, will treat others well," he said.
As for his living arrangements, Jun said he had "spots" in areas where he would go during the night. Jun is a nomad, who lives life one day at a time.
While others enjoy the freedom and the seemingly “no strings attached” life, others found themselves on the streets because of medical circumstances. Thomas, a Caucasian-Chamorro man in his early 30s, wanders all over Guam after finding himself without a home due to his mental disability. He said his family “didn’t want me,” as he pointed to his head.
Thomas likes to read, chew betel nut, and talk “the s**t.” He was fitted with cargo work pants. He pointed out that he did part-time landscaping work for money. He goes where he can, walking far distances, and as he puts it "not about that city life." He would walk for miles along the south, up to the north, and through central. He wanted to find love and said a woman, who lived in Santa Rita, broke his heart. But he'll keep on trying.
Leonard John Martinez, a Chamorro man who is often seen panhandling at the Micronesian Mall intersection, shares a similar story. His aunt kicked him out of their home when he was younger and has been out on his own for years. During holidays, he said, people are most generous.
Martinez made a recent appearance in local news after being arrested for allegedly terrorizing a minor during a home invasion.
In Barrigada, there is a homeless family four— all women — holding bags over their shoulders and reusable grocery bags on their hands. The two youngest girls were 5 and 2 years. They were from Chuuk and came to Guam just this past year. The younger sister explained they “move around from house to house," after her sister's husband “just left them one day without explanation.” They sometimes cramp in the house of extended family members. The two older girls work for food and shelter. Money is rare for the family.
They were hesitant to share their names during the interview, but they wanted to share their troubles. They rely on friends for rides, having no car nor money for public transportation. The mother stays at home to take care of her two daughters. They wanted to go Department of Public Health and Social Services to seek help, but they knew getting help would take time — everything takes time.
Chuukese have the second largest population of homeless on Guam, according to the latest numbers. Some come to Guam and find it difficult to make cultural adjustment. When families break apart, it can displace and disperse members of the clan.
In Dededo, Joseph Perez, a middle-aged Chamorro, is one of the consumers who receive free meals at the Guma San Jose shelter. Perez lost his job, kids and wife due to substance abuse. He owed money to many people.
Living out on the streets, he said, taught him how to survive. Perez, wearing a stained button-up island shirt with shorts and zories, said he has been “clean” for months but it is hard to convince his family and friends. He said he has paid "the ultimate cost" of drug addiction. To this day, he said, he is still trying to figure things out.
Perez said he tried to look for work but it is hard for him to get papers, a car, and just found it difficult to keep something permanent. He hopes for “good fortune from God” soon, as he held onto a cross around his neck. He said that many religious people have shown him compassion, and he wishes for people who knew his old self to do the same.