Homeless service providers in Honolulu are making major technological and procedural changes to their annual count of the unsheltered population in an effort to get more accurate totals of the homeless.

A better count increases the chances of Oahu securing the government funding it needs, said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, which organizes the point-in-time count. 

If we look like we’ve decreased our homeless population by 50%, that’s going to affect our funding,” said Thielen, who started her job last year. “We need to make this as accurate as possible so we get the funding we need to address the number of folks we’re seeing and the types of issues people are dealing with.” 

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park with tents.
Volunteers aim to count as many homeless people as they can find for the annual point-in-time count. Quantifying homelessness, however imprecisely, allows officials to request appropriate levels of funding. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Jan. 23 from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m., hundreds of volunteers are planning to canvass the entire island to interview homeless people about where they slept the night before. The effort is required to receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The volunteers collect data through a 21-question survey including location, age, race, length of homelessness, sexual orientation, substance abuse, mental illness and military service. Volunteers also ask about whether the person became homeless because of domestic violence and whether they are on the Hawaiian homestead waiting list. Homeless people staying in shelters or transitional housing are counted through an existing central database.

While not an exact count, the data is meant to be a rough snapshot of homelessness on a given day and can be useful for tracking trends.

For the first time, volunteers will replace hard copy surveys with electronic ones through an application called Survey123. It will increase speed – allowing them to skip questions that are irrelevant to some survey takers – and eliminate the possibility of illegible handwriting, according to Thielen.

In the past, we had these wonderful people volunteer, but if we can’t read their writing, we can’t count the survey,” she said. 

In previous years, homeless people who declined to participate in the surveys or quit midway were not counted or were counted inconsistently. This year, volunteers will be instructed to count homeless people by observation if they refuse to be surveyed or are inaccessible.

“If we know there are people in a car and can recognize they are two adult females, we can observe that and not have to interrupt their sleep or go into an unsafe area,” Thielen said.

Partners In Care will avoid duplication of unnamed homeless individuals with a geographic information system in Survey123, according to Thielen. Survey and observational entries will feed into a map, and duplicates will be removed, she said. Service providers will also use location information to find clients in need. 

“If we can see that there are U.S. vets in a particular area, we can tell the VA or veteran outreach programs to go out to the specific site and follow up with care,” Thielen said.

Unlike in prior years when volunteers conducted Oahu’s count over several days, this year’s effort is expected to be completed within seven hours in the hopes of avoiding duplications and in order to use resources most effectively, Thielen said.

Partners In Care Director Laura Thielen told state representatives on Tuesday about the changes to the annual Point In Time count. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2020

In years past, homeless people struggled to remember where they slept several days prior and were sometimes surveyed twice giving conflicting answers, according to Thielen. A single-day survey should solve that problem, she said. 

The 2019 point-in-time count left a lot of room for improvement, according to the resulting report. It cited volunteer confusion about how to handle survey refusals and incomplete and incorrect entries. In the case of questions about sexual orientation, the report said some volunteers were reluctant to ask questions perceived as “too personal.” As a result, the report noted its LGBTQ information was likely underestimated.

Thielen isn’t tolerating that this year.

“If you’re not willing to ask every question, you can’t be part of this process,” she said. “We don’t want to turn anyone away, but we want to be sure the ones doing the surveys are comfortable.” 

This year, Partners In Care has put a special emphasis on properly training its volunteers including how to ask sensitive questions.

Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness, applauded the changes to Oahu’s count. However, he noted that the neighbor islands still count over multiple days, so Honolulu’s adjustments may impact how statewide data can be analyzed for trends.

With the new processes, two things are likely to happen simultaneously: double-counts that existed in prior years will be eliminated and people who were not counted at all before will be counted now, said Justin Phillips, a senior outreach specialist at the Institute for Human Services. 

In other words, this year’s final count could appear out of step with last year, even if, in reality, homelessness hasn’t changed much. Phillips said it would be good to have three years of data under the new system before relying on year-over-year comparisons. 

“There is a risk that we’ll think, gee, we reduced homelessness by this number,” he said. “I hope nobody jumps to conclusions.” 

Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said the island’s approach to this year’s count will boost service providers’ ability to help their clients.

“It’s great that the leadership at Partners In Care has reviewed things in the past and that they’re open to approaches that other localities have utilized, such as the digital approach and doing it early in the morning,” Alexander said. “This is a positive thing.”

Partners In Care is still seeking volunteers for the Point In Time count. If you’re interested, sign up here.  

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