Even with the official number of homeless people soaring in their communities, some state and city lawmakers on Oahu say the latest homeless census gives them a better idea of how to plan for possibilities that could include hygiene centers and even tent cities.
Oahu is now home to nearly 5,000 homeless people — 4,959, according to the latest Point-in-Time-Count — and some parts of the island reported huge increases from the 2016 head count.
Oahu, overall, counted only 19 more homeless people from 2016 to 2017.
But at the same time, the area from Kaneohe to the North Shore saw a staggering 122 percent rise in its homeless numbers. And Wahiawa to the North Shore counted 74 percent more homeless people.
|WAHIAWA HOMELESS RESOURCE FAIR
>> What: Outreach by social service and government agencies to Wahiawa’s homeless to connect them with health, employment and housing programs
>> When: 9 a.m. to noon Friday
>> Where: Wahiawa Medical Arts Building, 302 California Ave.
Source: State homeless coordinator
While the numbers could be discouraging, lawmakers and social service providers in both areas believe the 2017 Point-in-Time-Count more accurately reflects the true scope of homelessness in their neighborhoods compared with the 2016 census.
More important, they say, the numbers will better help them figure out ways to get homeless people off the street.
Councilman Ernie Martin represents the biggest Council district on the island, which runs from the upper Windward side and into Wahiawa, where the largest gains were reported.
He has long advocated for a hygiene center somewhere in his district where homeless people could take a shower and, perhaps more important, get connected to homeless services that could lead to treatment and possibly permanent housing.
“The numbers further support the need for hygiene centers and a diverse set of community-based solutions that address the need in every district,” Martin wrote in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “What works in my Council district may not be applicable in another, which is why it is important to engage the community and ensure they are working with the city and all other stakeholders to address the situation in each district.”
State Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore- Poamoho) said the 385 homeless people counted from Wahiawa to the North Shore amounted to a 74 percent increase because more volunteers, including half a dozen churches and nonprofit groups, did a much better job of counting the homeless over the five days that they went out morning to night in January.
Oshiro said the increase was “as expected.”
“We had a real good effort at the grass-roots level,” Oshiro said. “They really went into every nook and cranny — over hills, down hills. That attributed to the higher count.”
On Wednesday a special city cleanup crew, backed by Honolulu police, enforced the city’s stored- property ordinance near the Waipahu Cultural Center and Plantation Village.
The crew collected more than 15 tons of trash and 17 cubic yards of metal, according to city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. A church and U.S. Vets went into the area ahead of the sweep and offered homeless services, Broder Van Dyke said.
ALEA Bridge, a nonprofit that is working to reduce homelessness in Wahiawa, received a $1 million grant-in-aid from the state to plan for a navigation center and is trying to raise even more money.
The Point-in-Time Count will allow Martin, Oshiro and others to get a better idea of how big a navigation center should be and where it should be, said ALEA Bridge’s executive director, Phil Acosta.
The numbers, Acosta said, “give us a better idea of how many people to serve now.”
The more homeless people who were identified this year, Acosta said, “makes a very good case for the need for a navigation center. (Once it opens), hopefully we’ll see a decline in the coming years.”
But the area from Wahiawa to the North Shore covers two very different groups of homeless, which could affect plans and location for a navigation center, Acosta said.
The Point-in-Time-Count did not provide specific numbers, but Acosta said the outreach effort clearly showed that Wahiawa’s homeless are generally homegrown, versus more malihini, or newcomers, on the North Shore.
“In Wahiawa most are what you would call your local homeless, who have ties to the community,” Acosta said. “On the North Shore it’s a different story. There are some folks who moved to the islands from different states.”
The Waianae Coast saw a 21 percent reduction in its homeless population, down from 456 in 2016 to 358 in January.
But the makeup of its homeless population is changing, said Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who represents the area.
“Waianae’s better,” she said, “but Kapolei-Ewa is worse.”
Pine blamed the city’s “stupid” sit-lie ban in parts of urban Honolulu for pushing more homeless people into her district.
“Ever since they did the sit-lie bans in town, Ewa and Kapolei have gone up,” Pine said. “They say, ‘I came from town. We heard people on the Leeward Coast are good to homeless people.’ It’s true but it’s irritating. … Now everybody else is coming because of the stupid sit-lie bill. Before, we could control the situation. Now it’s hard to manage our resources. They’re in our parks and in our beaches. We don’t know these people. We’ve never seen them before. But, bam, now we have this huge influx of people from town and Waikiki. It’s too much to handle all at once because we can’t help them fast enough, and that is the negative consequences of these sit-lie measures.”
Many businesses and some lawmakers continue to call for an islandwide sit-lie ban. But sit-lie is intended as a remedy for financial areas, such as downtown and Waikiki.
Imposing a sit-lie ban across the entire island would require creating enough temporary housing for all of those without a place to live, such as shelters, to pass a legal challenge, Pine said.
Since the concept of homeless shelters is fading across the country, some Oahu lawmakers have been calling for the creation of so-called “safe zones,” where homeless people could theoretically live in organized tent cities or possibly in their cars.
If an islandwide ban were imposed, Pine said lawmakers would then have an even bigger political problem on their hands: where to put the island’s 2,324 homeless who are categorized as “unsheltered.”
“An islandwide sit-lie ban would certainly stop people from moving around,” Pine said. “But no one’s asked for it because they know it’s stupid. They know it saves them but curses their neighbor. We have to then look to the more unpopular decisions of creating locations of where to put them because it would be deemed unconstitutional if you don’t have areas for these people to go. And that is an unpopular decision because no politician wants a so-called safe zone in their district. The real solution is we’re going to have to pick some areas and be compassionate, because we’ve tried everything else.”
For now the latest Point-in-Time-Count data will help guide the city on what to do next — and where to do it, said Jay Parasco, the city’s homeless initiatives coordinator.
“Our programs have been geared to areas of high (homeless) populations like downtown, Chinatown, Waikiki and Leeward Oahu,” Parasco said. “So the communities in Wahiawa, North Shore and upper Windward that have been expressing concerns about their homeless populations took action, volunteered and went out there to count people within their community. Now we can use that data to allocate resources appropriately.”
Specifically, the city’s Housing First program — aimed at getting homeless people into permanent housing where they can also receive treatment — has focused on homeless people from Chinatown, Waikiki, downtown and Windward Oahu.
Armed with the latest data, Parasco said, “we’ll broaden the scope to the rest of Oahu. Now we have the numbers to back it up.”