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Homeless count: A lack of volunteers for an annual census could threaten the state’s bid for federal dollars

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Institute for Human Services outreach specialist Jason Pang filled out a Point-in-Time count survey for a homeless person Tuesday at Aala Park on the outskirts of Chinatown.

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Homeless Point in Time Count a major volunteer effort to record the number of homeless people across the state on a given night kicks off in EWA Beach. US Vets is in charge of the this district. Pat Paiau answers questions from survey team.

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Heidi Apau, left, and “Z” emerged from a homeless structure in the Whitmore Village area on Tuesday after asking its resident some questions.

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Kai Gaudia, 43, fishes and lives at Oneula Beach Park.

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Institute for Human Services veteran services coordinator Keith Billingsley, right, and volunteer Melissa Bowen talked to Donna Mendoza along Ala Wai Boulevard on Monday.

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Frank Watanabe, who lives along the Alawai promenade, pauses after taking a survey during the annual homeless Point in Time count and census on Monday, January 25, 2016 in Waikiki. The Point in Time count is a major volunteer effort to record the number of homeless people across the state on a given night. The Institute for Human Services is in charge of the Waikiki district. The count, which will be released in the spring, determines how much federal funding Hawaii gets for homeless programs and housing. Numbers also are used to apply for grant programs.

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“Tony” in the darkness at Sand Island on Tuesday. Tony became homeless in October after leaving his job of more than 30 years as a sheet metal worker due to mistreatment.

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.”

76 responses to “Homeless count: A lack of volunteers for an annual census could threaten the state’s bid for federal dollars”

  1. kekelaward says:

    Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua) blurts out the dem view perfectly. “We have to count everyone or we could be leaving money on the table.”, instead of saying something like, “We have to count everyone, so that no one falls thru the cracks and the people needing help can get it”. All the dems care about is getting money that they’ll spend on their pet projects and not the homeless. Remember, this is the party that’s been in power for over 50 years, and has caused all these problems that we now face.

  2. 808comp says:

    All the politicians should go out one day and volunteer.

  3. JPC says:

    The guvs homless team should have stepped up to the plate. If its important like mr anderson said then they should have voulonteered their selves. Call the city council to help, after all of the total commitments to take the homless situation to a whole new level.. Pathetic politicions! They preach how important these federal tax dollars are but put blame on not enough volunteers.

    • fasteddie says:

      I was thinking the same thing. But I was also thinking, I could volunteer, just wasn’t asked. I honestly will say I will volunteer next year, esp since I live on the windward side. Besides that I am in LA now, but flying back today.

      When the tv news reported the survey I though that was a good idea. However, this is the first time I heard there were not enough volunteers. I am slammed with work, but I can always find some time to help others in need. Why can’t the politicians do the same?

      • mikethenovice says:

        We could spray paint them a bright orange on the head so they won’t be counted twice.

      • mikethenovice says:

        Fasteddie. And I will take the homeless count on Kahala Avenue.

        • rytsuru says:

          Of course you just, correctly, brought up another problem. Nice neighborhoods don’t have a homeless problem because they are “entitled” by their status to have them removed from the sidewalks, parks, etc. The normals in urban Honolulu are paying paying a lot in property taxes as well, with those numbers going up and up, but HPD is not really assigned to do anything about the overnight loiterers.

      • wilikitutu says:

        Anderson complains that the homeless nonprofits should have known that they wouldn’t have enough volunteers. What kind of crystal ball does he think they have? Now that the problem is known, it will be fixed.

    • allie says:

      agree…The various homeless agencies should have provided the manpower. Millions may now be lost because of the usual incompetence.

  4. danji says:

    Hey you politicians why don’t you people do some of the counting out there?? Always looking for freebies You are getting paid so show people what you can do but no you people think politicians should not be doing those things. Also didn’t the gov hire someone to head the homeless problem?? What is his salary?? Ikaika if you need a count try Participaring in getting that count or are you too high up there to kokua? Remember you are a servant of the people and not a leader- you were elected to do a job and elected to lead us

  5. mikethenovice says:

    Homeless could volunteer to count each other. There is always a alpha male in every crowd.

  6. mikethenovice says:

    I’m willing to sit as a homeless during the counting period just for more federal money for the truly displaced.

  7. mikethenovice says:

    Sounds like our state wants a high count just to embezzle the funds for another project not related to homelessness.

  8. mikethenovice says:

    Don’t forget to count all them shopping carts that were stolen.

  9. MANDA says:

    Why doesn’t the City administration show up and do the work? Why rely on the community to do it for free? Nice if it happens, but if it doesn’t, the salaried staff need to step up.

  10. mijoeca says:

    I get the feeling that the politicians would like to see more homeless people so they could get more fed money.

  11. retire says:

    Those that volunteered for this last year probably found the experience less than edifying. That would account for the low turnout this year. Thankless tasks like this one require pay to accomplish the objective. Money talks.

  12. ready2go says:

    There’s got to be a better way of completing these surveys. Perhaps they should be required to complete an annual survey if they want to continue receiving any government checks? This would put the responsibility on them.

  13. soundofreason says:

    ALL of these churches and non-profits and no volunteers. Says a lot.

  14. Mike174 says:

    Thankless for sure and with so much meth and alcohol in use its dangerous.

    • gmejk says:

      You also risk pissing them off (like Tom Brower did) by taking pictures. A lot of them just want to be left alone on the busiest intersections and streets of Honolulu to do their drugs. Best to just let them be.

  15. mikethenovice says:

    Hawaii ‘ s politicians are busy counting how many times they have lied to us.

  16. mikethenovice says:

    Millennial can’t do anything unless there is an smartphone app to compensate for the lack of common sense.

  17. Alohaguy96734 says:

    Here’s a novel thought. How about asking the homeless to volunteer?

  18. wilikitutu says:


  19. BO0o07 says:

    The SA should ask past volunteers why they are not volunteering this year. Their answers could be a clue of why there are less volunteers this year.

    • serious says:

      I don’t know if I can answer that BOO, but I was jogging on the beach past a “tent” and a pit bull charged out from under the array of shopping carts–thankfully it had a thick chain–about the size an aircraft carrier would use–to hold that huge animal back. So for me–counting the homeless–not ME!!! Have the Army get a tank and a bullhorn.

  20. sandpiper says:

    The website for the Annual Count states that the Count is a joint project between the Department of Human Services, the City and County and the PIC. Why wasn’t there better collaboration? Where was the breakdown? Where was the Governor’s Homeless Czar? SA – please do your homework.

  21. yobo says:

    Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations for the Institute for Human Services, is partly responsible for this fiasco.

    If you’re depending on important ‘ FEDERAL FUNDING’, WHY ARE YOU HIRING VOLUNTEERS? Volunteer groups provides services for no financial gain.
    That explains why only 17 of the 50 volunteers showed up!!

    Pay them minimum wage and you’ll get reliable people to show up to take the head count.

    Where does the state find these people/directors?

  22. RetiredWorking says:

    I’m surprised the Lion’s or Rotary Club doesn’t volunteer for this project. It would be a nice feather in their caps for community service.

  23. headcheese says:

    hire the homeless to count themselves

  24. PBnJz says:

    In the past, the military has been notified of this volunteer opportunity. I didn’t hear anything about it this year. Certainly someone is in charge of coordinating this survey and there should be continuity indicating timelines for when volunteers must be identified (with cushion to get more if needed) as well as who to coordinate with to solicit volunteers. No need to point fingers here, there and everywhere…i think it could be easily identified that one or two folks dropped the ball, but not everyone ya’ll are trying to blame things on in order to make political points!

  25. sailfish1 says:

    The State has plenty of workers. Some of them should be asked to volunteer for this count. After all, they work half speed at their normal job and should have plenty of energy to do something worthwhile.

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