Editor's note: “It never used to be this bad” was a common sentiment among those interviewed by The Guam Daily Post over the past several weeks about homelessness on Guam. This is the first in a series that looks at the undercurrents that tear some people away from their families and the community, and tosses them onto the pavement.
For Doris Royal, helping the homeless on Guam is a calling. She began working at the nonprofit organization Archdiocese of Agana, Ministry to the Homeless in 2012, serving nightly meals to the homeless and helping connect the needy with necessary goods, because, she said, she wanted to help people. Royal said she loves her job because of the one-on-one interactions she has with those who come to the meal center – an average of 40 people come nightly to eat what may be their only meal of the day.
Royal knows most, if not all, of the names of those who come through the kitchen's doors. She knows their stories, health problems, criminal records and addictions. She also knows that many of the homeless on Guam are a lot like the average person, but a wrong turn, an economic pitfall, a failed relationship or another unfortunate incident set them on a path that ended in a life without a permanent roof over their heads.
“I had this one gentleman, he came in to eat and he told me he just lost his job. And what was so bad was he had just started the job two weeks ago and he got injured on the job, so therefore he was out,” Royal said.
A report completed in 2018 by the Guam Homeless Coalition and Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority found that 854 people on the island were identified as homeless. CHamorus made up the highest population, accounting for 40% of the total count.
This number points to a change in a community known for its hospitality and warmth. The island's community has a strong focus on family, social ties and giving to those in need, as expressed in the CHamoru value of "inafa'maolek" – working together to make things right. But something tore away at the fabric that binds our community together.
Royal said that in her experience, those who are homeless but have families on Guam are no longer supported by their families because of repeated run-ins with the law or ongoing drug habits that can strain the foundation of even the most tight-knit clan.
“Because they are on drugs, the families do not want them around. Therefore, they are out on the streets,” Royal said.
And many stay on the streets because they are able to live off the kindness and day-to-day donations of passersby.
“Growing up, I never saw that. Families took care of families. It’s really a reflection of the way society is now,” said Angelina Cruz, chairwoman of the Guam Homeless Coalition.
The homeless and the panhandlers
Cruz, who has been volunteering to help the homeless on Guam for the past 10 years, said the coalition reaches out to those seen panhandling, but some refuse the coalition's help.
“I think part of it is because they are being enabled. Why else would you stand there all day?” Cruz stated.
"Some of them may not even be homeless,” Cruz said. “Before, they would suck it up and say, 'I’m going to stay with my family.' But now it’s like, 'I don’t need to stay there.'"
The homeless population is smaller today than it was in 2011. Preliminary numbers from the 2019 point-in-time count show there are 873 homeless individuals on Guam. In 2011, the count was almost exactly double that number at 1,745.
Yet all will agree that there are more people today – compared to previous years – either out on the street asking drivers and pedestrians for some change to help them get back on their feet, or hanging out in front of stores asking shoppers for some cash to buy gas. These encounters spread the public perception that the island's homeless population is booming.
Those asking for handouts along the streets can receive as much as $200 to $300 a day, according to Diana Calvo. Calvo, for the last nine years, has been the executive director of Catholic Social Service, which is one of the Guam Homeless Coalition's partners.
“In my experience, when I first started at CSS, a lot of emphasis (was) in sheltering individuals who are ... homeless, but our programs were pretty much failing,” Calvo said. “If you look at the point-in-time count, it looks like the numbers are improving, but (the) everyday person will say that homelessness is more than an issue than it was before, because you see more people standing on the streets, more people panhandling ... they are more visible now."
However, Cruz urges resident to look beyond the faces they see on the street corners of their villages.
A big portion of the homeless population that goes unseen are the people who are struggling, Cruz said. "Those aren’t the people standing at the corner,” she said.
Guam Police Department Chief Stephen Ignacio said panhandling on Guam is legal under current law, though an amendment was made to address “aggressive” panhandling.
He said, personally, it is an issue that makes him feel conflicted.
“On one hand, if they are not allowed to panhandle and make a little bit of money to go buy food or water or drinks or whatever, then how else are they going to get what they need?" Ignacio said. "But if I don’t allow them to panhandle or if we outright outlaw panhandling, how are they going to make money to get that bottle of water or can of food? So they may resort to running into stores and snatching a drink and running out the front door. They may resort to crime, right?”
Yet Ignacio acknowledges it does impact the public at large.
“It bothers everybody in general because it’s not just one particular section anymore – it's almost every intersection that you go through, whether in Hagåtña or Tamuning. You drive all the way up as far as Dededo and you still see it,” he said.