A shortage of volunteers hampered efforts to count homeless people throughout the state last week, potentially jeopardizing a federal funding formula that has provided millions of dollars for homeless support, according to service providers and outreach workers.
“We had two-thirds less volunteers than we normally do because this year’s coordinators thinned them out and assigned them to regions rather than agencies,” said Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations for the Institute for Human Services, which runs the state’s largest shelter program. “Everyone that I have spoken with has called this year a disaster.”
On Monday night, coordinators at one Honolulu location expected 50 volunteers, but 17 showed up. The following night, 20 volunteers were expected, but three showed up.
The Point-in-Time count, a census of homeless people, is conducted across the nation each January. This year, teams of surveyors trekked through woodland trails, down beach paths and along urban walkways asking homeless people the same question: “Where did you sleep this past Sunday, Jan. 24?”
Surveyors also asked questions about age, race, ethnicity, medical needs and children. The answers help local agencies compete with other cities and states for more than $1 billion in federal funds disbursed through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Homeless Point-in-Time counts are the tool that HUD uses to gauge the level and severity of homelessness in communities,” said Eduardo Cabrera, the department’s San Francisco-based regional public affairs officer.
Last year, the count, along with other measurements of homelessness, resulted in $9.8 million for Honolulu agencies and $1.8 million for the rest of the state, Cabrera said. While both figures were slightly higher than the year before, the program is growing increasingly competitive and undercounting could be costly. This year’s disbursement decisions also will be based on year-round data collection, agency reports and housing inventory counts.
Marc Gannon, chairman of Partners in Care, a coalition of groups concerned with ending homelessness, said the count also helps agencies understand the scope of the problem, allocate resources and make program decisions. However, he said the count “has some limitations.”
“It fails to capture families who are in and out of homelessness,” he said.
After the count is concluded, analysts have to make sure respondents aren’t duplicated. In addition to workers in the field, those who provide food and shelter for the homeless also collect data during the week, and some people might be surveyed more than once. “Fortunately we have a pretty good system to account for that,” he said.
Carvalho said homeless service providers have long questioned the accuracy of the count and have been striving for the past several years to do a better job.
“It can’t be right. Last year’s count for all of Oahu was about 4,903. However, (Institute for Human Services) alone serves 5,000 homeless people a year and we’re just in the North Shore, Waikiki and urban Honolulu,” he said. “Given the poor coordination, there’s no way that this year’s count will be robust. It’s discouraging.”
Organizers for the Windward/North Shore region said they panicked early last week when few volunteers showed up for training. While Cabrera said many cities and states are able to complete the count in one day, the region extended its count through Friday to recruit and train more volunteers.
“We didn’t want a repeat of last year when the count said that only 25 homeless people were living from Waihee Road to Turtle Bay Resort,” said KC Connors, a volunteer counter. “We think the count has been off for years.”
Only five homeless people in the region were counted in 2014, and 21 were counted in 2013.
“Those numbers are preposterous,” said Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua). “I had a series of town hall meetings and when I pointed it out to people they just laughed. They’ve got the same issue on the North Shore, which includes Turtle Bay to Kaena Point and includes parts of Mililani and Wahiawa. The fidelity of the data is important. We have to count everyone or we could be leaving money on the table.”
Leona Ching, secretary for the Windward Homeless Coalition, said low counts continue to hurt her community. After the last-minute effort, counters were able to complete 40 surveys in the region.
“We’re undercounted so we don’t have as many resources,” Ching said. “We have a lot of need in this community and we don’t have a lot of places that we can send someone for help.”
Connors said she knew the Windward side was in trouble again when she showed up for a training session and was the only new volunteer there. Riviere said his staff tried to help the community find more volunteers, but it was likely too late for a turnaround. A concerted effort needs to be made now to ensure similar problems don’t occur next year, he said.
“I didn’t see much publicity about trying to drum up volunteers until this week. We really didn’t do as well as we should have,” Riviere said.
Honolulu City Council Vice Chairman Ikaika Anderson questioned why his office was not contacted for assistance until Thursday, when little could be done to shore up the number of volunteers.
“It’s important to get an accurate count. The best way to do that is to have as many people counting as possible,” he said. “The fact that some folks may not get the assistance that they desperately need is concerning for me and all nine members of the Council. We need all the funding that we can possibly get.”
As counters headed to Aala Park on Tuesday evening, IHS/Housing First case manager Jason Pang reflected on the importance of their work. “We need to know who’s out there, their needs, how we can help them,” he said. “It’s about trying to connect these people to services.”
“I estimate that we get about half,” he said.
Hope Lanier, an office manager for Aloha Water Co., regularly helps the homeless with job searching and resume building. Given that homelessness is such an important issue, she expected to see more volunteers.
“It’s amazing,” Lanier said. “Everybody grumbles about it, but nobody does anything. Be a part of the solution.”
Gannon said problems encountered during this year’s count will help organizers prepare better next year.
“I think we have to accept that depending on volunteers is a challenge in itself,” he said.
“We want to see the number of homeless individuals decline, but not because of poor data collections,” Gannon said. “It’s really our job to ensure that we have the most accurate information.”