Denby Fawcett: I Helped Count The Homeless In Honolulu

In The News

Denby Fawcett: I Helped Count The Homeless In Honolulu

2017-01-25

Participating in the annual homeless survey was a bit intimidating and, ultimately, oddly relaxing.

By Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat  

Photography by Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

One of the first questions people asked when we gathered to get our two-hour training last week to participate in the annual Homeless Persons Point-In-Time Count was, “Is this dangerous?”

Safety was a logical concern for volunteers going out from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to count the homeless, sometimes in the dark, sometimes rousting disgruntled homeless campers sleeping in their tents to urge them to do the survey.

And a few of the survey questions are pretty intrusive, such as, “Do you have a mental health disability?” Or, “Do you have an alcohol or drug problem that limits your ability to work or perform activities of daily living?” Or, “Are you currently living with HIV/AIDs?”

Homeless outreach worker Rayna Brown taught us how to ask these questions in a gentle way.

And she warned, “Don’t approach a homeless person by yourself. Always have someone with you to back you up. If you feel in danger, just raise your hand and walk three steps back. We will be there to help you.”

Brown works for the The Institute for Human Services. She was one of the social service outreach workers accompanying the volunteers as they formed into small teams to do the canvassing.

Federal Funds At Stake

This year, 450 volunteers signed up to count homeless all over Oahu. Including me. My section’s meeting place was at the Old Stadium Park.

Before we fanned out, Brown cautioned, “Don’t flash your flashlight in anyone’s face. They might get upset. It might trigger something to make them go off.”

Justin Phillips, outreach field manager at IHS, said in the many years he has helped with the surveying, no homeless person has ever harmed a volunteer.

At the worst, he said, a grumpy homeless man sharply reprimanded a canvasser for waking him up. And there were the volunteers who got temporarily lost when they strayed away from the group and were left behind.

The teams moved very fast to collect as much data as possible, sweeping from  gathering places such as at the Old Stadium Park and the Waikiki Shell to spread out across Waikiki, Ala Moana, Moiliili and Kaimuki.

The survey is done once a year nationwide to get a single point-in-time count on how many people are living on a given night in parks, on beaches, in their cars, on the streets or in temporary emergency shelters.

The count is one of the reports that’s required to the state wants to receive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development federal funds. Last year, HUD granted Hawaii about $11.5 million in funding for transitional shelters, housing and other services to help the homeless statewide.

Photographer Ronen Zilberman and I went along to document the counting and to get first-hand experience conducting the interviews.

The first woman I tried to interview refused. She was barely visible inside a dark pup tent I had crawled on my knees to reach. She was clutching a small, brown poi dog. Peering from the back of the tent, she said she was just visiting friends and was not really homeless.

Volunteers are told to back off when they get a refusal. But sometimes a homeless camper can be persuaded to change his or her mind when offered what outreach manager Phillips calls “incentives.”

‘Where Did You Sleep This Past Sunday?’

This year Partners in Care, the organization coordinating the point-in-time count, received more than 700 gift cards from Honolulu businesses to offer as incentives, including $5 cards from Starbucks, McDonald’s, Jamba Juice, Longs and Foodland.

“It is a way of thanking the homeless with a treat or a meal for the time they have given for the interview,” said Partners in Care director Jen Stasch.

Interviews can last from five to 10 minutes.

A key question to begin the interview is, “Where did you sleep this past Sunday, January 22?”

As we crisscrossed Old Stadium Park, most of the people interviewed by the volunteers said they have been sleeping in the park or outside the nearby McCully-Moiliili Public Library.

Robert Hess, 54, said he suffers from diabetes and substance abuse. He said he has been homeless for the last 17 years and sleeps either by the library or in the park.

Hess was interviewed by Keith Coronel and Tatianna Mulitauaopele. Mulitauaopele said she volunteered because she works for an engineering firm that’s near homeless encampments.

“The homeless are kind of like my neighbors. I wanted to help,” she said.

Honolulu attorney Vernon Char said he volunteered for the first time because, “I am interested in learning more about homelessness.”

Later, as we walked tent-to-tent in the park, we came across Greg Sievers, a wiry 58-year-old man standing by his tarp, surrounded by a heap of  boxes and broken bicycles.

Sievers said he’s been homeless in Hawaii for the last nine years since he moved here from Bluewater, New Mexico.

He said he was planning to retire in Honolulu with his $30,000 in savings, but then he saw how easy it was to live in a tent and he has been homeless ever since.

Sievers, like most of the people we interviewed, talked about drug use, but only reluctantly. He told us he began using heroin when he was 10 years old.

Not The Full Story

In last year’s point-in-time survey, volunteers counted 7,921 homeless people statewide  — a nearly 4 percent increase from the 7,620 counted in 2015.

But the counts fail to tell the whole story about how many people are actually homeless in Hawaii. They don’t include the hundreds of people finding shelter in jails or hospitals or who are “couch surfing” at the homes of friends or relatives.

Kimo Carvalho, IHS community relations director, said, “the point-in-time count has a very targeted and narrow purpose. We are doing what HUD asks us to do to receive funding.”

Brigitte Klein, 56, agreed to be interviewed for the count when we came across her pushing a baby stroller filled with bottles and cans. She said she gets by each day recycling the items in the stroller.

“I can make up to $40 a day, and then some,” she said.

Brigitte said she moved to Old Stadium Park recently after she and other homeless people were pushed out of their encampment near the Ala Wai Golf Course.

When I complimented her on her T-shirt, she said, “Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you can’t look nice.”

She happily accepted the “incentive” of a $5 McDonald’s gift card.

Oddly Relaxing Evening

It was a strange, different and oddly relaxing way to spend an evening, stopping by to chat with homeless people whom we usually see only fleetingly from the windows of our passing cars.  Almost everyone we met was welcoming and cordial.

Joshua Jensen, volunteer coordinator for IHS, said the homeless count gives volunteers “the chance to be an active part of the problem, and an active part of the solution.”

“A lot of people just read about homelessness or see it on TV. They avoid it,”Jensen said. “This is an opportunity to interact face-to face with homeless individuals who are experiencing addiction and mental illness. Volunteers get a rare chance to see the homeless residents as human beings, just like them, but deep in the throes of different, more tragic situations.”

Point-in-time surveying continues through the week. Tentative results for the statewide count are expected by early April.