New office, reactivated council are latest in efforts to help homeless Guamanians

GOVERNMENT OFFICES: The building that once housed the Guam Legislature sits inactive. It is expected to house government offices, though at one time, federal funding to refurbish the building was approved with the intent of building a night-time shelter for the island's homeless population. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

The governor has created a new office and reactivated a council in an effort to curb homelessness on Guam. 

The governor reactivated a homelessness council originally created in EO 2007-02 and charged it with “examining problems associated with homelessness and developing and implementing strategies and programs for coordinated, effective response to reduce homelessness in Guam.”

The governor’s latest executive order, 2020-23, also appoints the Department of Public Health and Social Services as the lead agency in the emergency COVID-19 homeless shelter. The effort was previously lead by Homeland Security. 

This is the latest in the effort to find immediate and long-term solutions to the island’s homelessness issue. 

Under this new executive order, DPHSS and the government of Guam “shall work to make shelter and protection from COVID-19 available for unsheltered homeless individuals and families for the duration of the public health emergency.”

The old legislature building in Hagåtña had originally been intended to be used as an overnight shelter for the island’s homeless population. However, it's been turned into government offices.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic came the idea to build a tent city at Paseo to shelter homeless people. That was scrapped, however, after Public Health and federal partners said the plan didn’t address cross-contamination and social distancing concerns. Since word of that program went out in April, however, many among the island’s homeless population have flocked to Paseo hoping for help.

Last week, the governor announced the government was about to award contracts for two housing facilities as part of Operation Safe Haven, the emergency shelter for the homeless population during the pandemic. Adelup has yet to provide an update.

Just weeks ago, Homeland Security Advisor Tim Aguon, said he was charged with leading the effort on both the emergency and long-term homeless housing issue. Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority Executive Director Ray Topasna confirmed his agency’s role was to provide technical assistance. Neither agency has provided any update on their efforts.

Topasna, along with Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio and then-Chief of Staff Tony Babauta, visited Hawaii in 2019 to learn about the programs Hawaii launched to alleviate homelessness and bring back potential solutions. About a week ago, however, Topasna said there was no local plan created to address Guam’s homelessness problem as a result of that visit to Hawaii.

Former Gov. Carl Gutierrez, who is now the president and CEO of the Guam Visitors Bureau, has met with some of the homeless people in Paseo as part of his effort to bring that population out of Tumon, which is the island’s tourism epicenter.

“It’s more than just helping the homeless,” he wrote to The Guam Daily Post on Monday in response to questions. "It’s about addressing their safety and the public’s safety. Many of the homeless population are living in unsafe structures and are without access to resources to get them tested for COVID-19 and take care of themselves. I’ve spoken to many of them while touring some of the sites they occupy and they are open to moving provided they have a place to stay.”

When asked what he thought of the months-long wait to get an emergency shelter opened, he responded: “I think Gov. Leon Guerrero and her administration are doing what they can to expedite the process of sheltering our homeless population safely and tackle a long-standing concern that has been elevated with the current pandemic. A lot of great minds are at work on this issue and I will continue to support their efforts in whatever way I can.”

New office and interagency council

The governor, in an executive order signed Monday, extended the public health emergency to July 30.

After the emergency, GovGuam, through the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and the Office of Homelessness Assistance and Poverty Prevention, “shall endeavor to establish a shelter, transitional housing, and paths for permanent housing for homeless individuals and families," according to the executive order. 

OHAPP will fall under the administrative supervision of the Mayors' Council of Guam. Mayors’ Council Executive Director Angel Sablan said they’re “prepared to take on this additional mandate ... as long as funding comes with it.”

Sablan added the governor has provided assurances that the funds, personnel and office space will be provided as needed.

Leon Guerrero’s executive order names seven agency representatives as part of the council; not listed, however, is the Homeland Security advisor, who government officials had confirmed just a couple of weeks ago would be charged with the short- and long-term homeless housing program.

The seven representatives are:

• the lieutenant governor, who will serve as the council chairperson;

• a mayor chosen by the Mayors' Council of Guam, who will serve as vice chairperson;

• Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority executive director;

• Guam Housing Corp. president;

• Guam Regional Transit Authority executive manager;

• general public representative appointed by the governor; and

• an employee or volunteer from the Guam Homeless Coalition appointed by the governor.

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