Volunteers and social service outreach workers fanned out across Oahu on Monday night to interact with the homeless and try to get an accurate head count for an island that once had the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country.
Last year 167 homeless people were counted in Waikiki as part of the annual, nationwide Point in Time Count. Justin Phillips, the Institute for Human Services’ field manager for outreach, was prepared to see the numbers rise despite an ongoing crackdown in Waikiki.
“We’re looking for about the same number, but you never know,” Phillips said as he dispatched 48 volunteers and a dozen more social workers throughout the heart of Hawaii’s tourism industry. “The population changes every day.”
The Point in Time Count will continue for the rest of the week on Oahu and across most of the islands. The numbers for Hawaii and the rest of the country will be released nationally later this year to give a better picture of whether more — or fewer — homeless are living in the islands and across the nation.
The numbers play a factor in determining how much federal Housing and Urban Development funds flow to the islands.
For many of the Waikiki volunteers, an afternoon and evening spent interacting with the homeless provided an opportunity to personally connect homeless people with services.
In many cases they were disappointed.
One volunteer, Vivian Chang, 66, of Diamond Head, considered it “my civic duty,” adding, “You have to get off your duff and get to work.”
Chang wears a medical identification bracelet for her bipolar disorder and empathizes with Hawaii’s homeless who suffer from mental disorders.
She cited the lyrics from the 1960s-era folk song “There but for Fortune,” saying, “There but for fortune go you and I.”
Mike Smith, 58, of Moiliili expected that the experience would give him “a whole different perspective and look at the homeless situation differently.”
Trained social workers walked side by side with volunteers who were warned to be aware of their surroundings, stay in groups and raise their hands and step back if trouble broke out.
“We want to be mindful of one another and make sure no one gets lost along the way,” Phillips said during a briefing in the parking lot of the Waikiki Shell. “We’ve never had an incident. We don’t want this year to be the one.”
A group of six volunteers immediately encountered Patricia Kona on a concrete bench on the mauka side of Kalakaua Avenue as Kona sat with her injured poi dog, Sebastian, who wore a dirty bandage on his left front paw.
Kona described her age as “more than 50” and said she was a full-blooded Hawaiian. She’s been sleeping on Waikiki sidewalks for nine nights after she and Sebastian were kicked out of a group home.
Volunteers asked Kona where she slept the night before, and she replied, “On the sidewalk.”
Kona appreciated the offer of a McDonald’s coupon that she could redeem for one of six items, such as an ice cream cone or hamburger. Kona said other people also had been generous, such as a stranger who left her pancakes and fried rice that sat in a plastic bag by her side.
Asked by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser whether she planned to take advantage of the services of a shower and shelter bed offered by outreach workers, Kona shook her yes — and then no.
After the group left, Kona began talking to herself as she waved her arms.
Aedrea Waggoner, 29, arrived in Waikiki on Jan. 12, 2016, from Folly Beach, S.C., with no job and no place to live. The reason was simple, Waggoner said: “the weather.”
Waggoner held a hand-written cardboard sign on Kalakaua Avenue that read, “Big Cancer … Not Collecting From the Government,” and said she has a growing tumor in her stomach, along with other medical problems.
Waggoner said she’s spent the last year hiding from law enforcement in Waikiki but could not explain why she has no intention of accepting help — other than cash handouts.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
The Point in Time Count continues today and tonight in communities including East Honolulu.