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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Get to Know a Grantee: Sanctuary Incorporated of Guam

Get to Know a Grantee: Sanctuary Incorporated of Guam

Support for Pacific Islander youth who are homeless, runaway, neglected, or abused has long been a focus for Sanctuary Incorporated of Guam (Sanctuary), located on the island of Guam, a U.S. territory located in the western Pacific Ocean. Sanctuary serves the entire island, which is comprised of approximately 200 square miles, and has a population of just under 155,000 residents. Founded in 1971 as a safe haven for runaway youth, Sanctuary receives funding from two Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) programs. The RHY Basic Center Program supports Sanctuary’s emergency youth shelter for up to 21 days, and the RHY Transitional Living Program (TLP) supports Sanctuary’s 18-month residential program, Sagan Linala (translated as A Place for a Better Life), for youth ages 16 to 22 with up to three dependents, up to age 9. Sanctuary also has expanded its services to include a 24-hour crisis hotline; counseling and support groups for youth, adults, and families; a residential substance abuse treatment facility for youth; and an AmeriCorps community outreach program.

To celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and to learn more about the challenges and opportunities of working with vulnerable youth in Guam, staff from FYSB’s National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families recently spoke with Sanctuary’s Executive Director Victor Camacho; Stephanie Drilon, Crisis and Corporate Communications Officer; and Leilani Giltinag, Quality Assurance and Corporate Compliance Officer.

Sanctuary serves about 40 youth and families a year, most of whom are Pacific Islanders. The island's population is very diverse, largely comprised of CHamoru, Guam's indigenous population; Filipino Americans; and those whose parents or grandparents are from nearby island groups, such as Chuuk, Yap, and Pohnpei. Sanctuary staff reflects the ethnicities of the community, which Camacho says makes it easier to build connections with youth and their families. "Our staff also includes people with lived experience as homeless youth, including those that have received Sanctuary services in the past," he says. Members of the staff who have experienced life challenges similar to those of the clients often serve as role models. "There are a lot of peer mentors among the Sanctuary staff," says Camacho.

Camacho understands that Guam runaway and homeless youth, as residents of an island, face different challenges than those who reside off island. He says, "Homelessness on Guam is less about living on the streets and more about living in substandard housing or couch surfing." Camacho shares that on an island like Guam, many residents know each other or may even be related to one another, and family is often considered the entire extended family. "The most significant cultural tradition that positively impacts runaway and homeless youth is poksai, roughly translated as 'rearing,'" he says. "It's very common to have kids raised by uncles and aunties, grandparents, godparents, other relatives, and neighbors. This helps in the reunification process because of familiarity with the youth and the large extended family offers additional placement options." It can also impact Sanctuary’s ability to reach youth in crisis because these youth may have a cultural reluctance to seek help outside of their family.

Given the variety of cultural backgrounds among Guam residents, language can also be a barrier in supporting youth experiencing homelessness. Residents speak many languages, including English, CHamoru, and other island languages. "A lot of the youth that we serve may speak English," says Giltinag, "However, their parents may know very little English, making the transfer of information from youth to parents challenging. And when we come in to do mediation and to reunite the family, there can be a lot of miscommunication." Many of Sanctuary’s staff members speak other languages and are often used as translators to help overcome this challenge.

Risk factors for Sanctuary's clients mirror those for off-island runaway and homeless youth. During the intake process, clients sometimes present with a history of drug abuse in their families, typically methamphetamines, and may have experienced sexual abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or cyberbullying. Some also may have undiagnosed mental health disorders, which may first be identified during the intake process or, if counseling is deemed appropriate, during formal counseling sessions. Camacho says that while human trafficking is uncommon on Guam, Sanctuary staff perform human trafficking screenings as well. Fortunately, no human trafficking cases have been identified in recent years.

Despite the many challenges faced by youth and families in crisis, Sanctuary's programs realized many successes. They aim for family reunification when possible, and when not, they support youth with long-term housing, as well as self-advocacy and self-sufficiency. Clients are encouraged to finish high school, attend Guam Community College or the University of Guam, or enroll in other training to enhance their career opportunities. Sanctuary has been successful in helping youth find a variety of career opportunities. One TLP youth apprenticed with the plumbing company that does work at Sanctuary locations. After completing TLP, the youth reconnected with his family and now works full time for the plumbing company. Another youth completed TLP and enrolled in the Hawaii Job Corps program, with the goal of receiving certification as an American Sign Language interpreter. A former Sanctuary youth, who completed the TLP 10 years ago, now works as an advocate for youth in need of service and provides holiday-centered meals for Sanctuary shelters.

The close-knit familiarities of life on a small island that Camacho describes support diverse and effective partnering opportunities with government organizations (Child Protective Services and the Department of Youth Affairs), law enforcement (Guam Police Department's Domestic Assault Response Team), judicial offices (the Attorney General of Guam and the Judiciary of Guam), health systems (Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center) and Guam Department of Education. Sanctuary also collaborates with Mañe'lu (translated in English to "brothers and sisters"), formerly Big Brothers and Big Sisters, on government subsidized housing projects, by conducting community outreach and assessments. Other Sanctuary partners include faith-based organizations and community organizations such as the Lions Club, the Guam Hogs (a motorcycle club), and the realtors association. Guam's five Rotary Clubs provide donations, holiday meals, and sponsored projects. GTA, a local telecommunications company, organizes quarterly beautification projects, such as painting Sanctuary's shelters. Sanctuary also works closely with undergraduate and graduate student interns. The AmeriCorps program at Sanctuary largely focuses on community work, including assistance at the public schools and beach clean-ups, but members may also volunteer to help with youth at the Transitional Living or Basic Center Program.

Almost every case at Sanctuary begins with a call to its 24-hour crisis hotline, which Drilon directs. Sanctuary responds with case management, intervention, and referrals to the co-ed emergency shelter, the residential treatment program for substance abuse, and other services. To spread the word about Sanctuary and the hotline, the agency uses social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. Drilon also distributes brochures and cards about Sanctuary’s services to the police, other nonprofits, schools, and colleges. Sanctuary has usually relied on in-person outreach at community fairs, Camacho says, but this has been limited due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Sanctuary’s staff are involved in civic organizations, task forces, and inter-agency councils and coalitions. Camacho encourages staff to use their involvement in these activities to promote the work of Sanctuary. "The connections our staff makes help to foster strategic partnerships for Sanctuary in the community."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, "we did not shut our doors to the community," says Drilon. "We just kept finding every way possible to continue serving. “Sanctuary used multiple pandemic prevention health and safety best practices to protect its staff and clients at the height of the pandemic and beyond. They changed intake procedures to include practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and ensuring that all staff members are vaccinated. The pandemic severely decreased Guam’s number one industry, tourism. "For a small island, this is huge," says Camacho. “The impact has led to job losses for many people, especially in the service industry. That in turn has led to food insecurity, as well as increases in drug use, abuse, and theft.” For youth, the pandemic also increased educational neglect, especially early on. During early months of the pandemic, schools shifted to online learning, but for many youth, lack of internet access and electronic devices made this learning modality impossible. Drilon explains, "We have even come across a case where a client has missed almost a year of school."

Fortunately, the benefits of Sanctuary’s strong partnerships drove improvements in primary and secondary education for youth at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Online learning capability improved due to free or discounted portable WiFi units for students donated by local telecommunication companies, combined with laptops provided by the Guam Department of Education.

Once life in Guam again resembles pre-pandemic life, Sanctuary looks forward to resuming more in-person events and conferences with youth and to celebrating its 50th anniversary, which took place last year.

Through his experiences, Camacho offers advice for mainland organizations that work with Pacific Islander youth. “Pacific Islanders are in the minority on the mainland, yet they have come from a small island, where everyone looks like them, dresses like them, eats like them, and practices the same culture. On the mainland, these islanders may be experiencing something completely different and are seeking familiarity,” he says. "When you can invest in understanding that, then you will better serve that individual." Drilon added that searching online for local or national organizational sites that offer information or assistance about a Pacific Islander's ethnicity and language, such as CHamoru or Chuukese, or simply searching for Guam or Micronesia, may lead to good resources. "There are so many smaller organizations that address specific populations or cultures. Those programs can definitely help you in serving the community or serving youth."