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Report reveals rise in homelessness

By Mary Vorsino

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:03 a.m. HST, Nov 17, 2010

The number of homeless people on Oahu rose 5 percent under one key measure in the last fiscal year, according to a new report that also sheds new light on the health and education of homeless children.

Advocates say the study helps illustrate how the recession has driven many households living paycheck-to-paycheck into homelessness.

"We're still seeing people struggling," said Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Hawaii chapter. "People are still trying to adjust."

The report, by the University of Hawaii Center on the Family, said 9,781 homeless people received outreach or shelter services on Oahu last year, a 5 percent increase.

It was released yesterday at a homeless awareness conference in Waikiki, where advocates gathered from around the state to talk about homelessness and potential solutions.

Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie spoke in a morning session, pledging to work closely with nonprofits on helping homeless people and to commit resources in his office to finding grants for homeless programs and prevention.

"I think we need to invest in housing; we need to invest in people," he told attendees. "People expect us to get things done."

The study found that homelessness nudged up 3 percent statewide in the fiscal year that ended June 30, with 13,886 residents accessing shelter or outreach services.

Kauai saw a 7 percent increase in homelessness, while the number of people receiving homeless services on Maui and the Big Island went up 6 percent.

This is the sixth year Hawaii has seen increases in the number of homeless people accessing services, but advocates have in the past attributed a big portion of those jumps to more shelter space and more robust outreach services.

HOMELESS AWARENESS EVENTS

Some of the events this week in conjunction with Homeless Awareness Week:

» Walk the Talk. Ten-day homeless awareness and fundraising walk around Oahu, ends Friday at 5 p.m. at state Capitol. To donate, go to www.hawaiiwalkthetalk.org.
» Ho'olaulea. Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., state Capitol. Entertainment, food, resources and giveaways. Free and open to public.
» Maui homeless health fair. Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Kahului Salvation Army.
» Kauai job and resource fair. Today, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Piikoi Conference Center.
» Big Island homeless community fairs, today through Saturday, various sites. Call Brandee Menino, 933-6013.

Last fiscal year, though, there was little growth in the number of shelter beds, and outreach services overall likely declined amid state cuts to safety net programs.

Pamela Menter, chairwoman of Partners in Care, a consortium of homeless service providers, said nonprofits in the coming year will try to beef up and restore services.

"We really want to ramp up what we're doing," she said. "We all need to put our heads together to find solutions."

Meanwhile, the UH study for the first time took a closer look at homeless children, who make up more than one-third of those in shelters and 10 percent of homeless served through outreach services. The report found:

» 9 percent of homeless children from 6 to 17 years old were not attending school.

» 24 percent of 12th-graders who were homeless and 47 percent of kindergarten-age kids weren't going to school.

» One quarter of children who experienced homelessness had one or more physical, mental, behavioral or developmental problems. The most prevalent was asthma, followed by speech, vision or hearing issues, allergies and learning disabilities.

» Children from birth to age 5 made up 56 percent of all minors served through shelter or outreach services.

Sarah Yuan, of the Center on the Family, called the statistics on homeless children "alarming."

Yuan said questionnaires showed confusion among parents, especially the newly homeless, about the assistance available to their children.

"I think it is a lack of information," she said. "A lot of times, they got into this situation unexpectedly."

Among the reasons parents gave for not sending their child to school were "residency requirements," an inability to get previous school records and lack of health or immunization records.

In the 2009-10 school year, the state Department of Education identified 2,973 public schoolchildren as homeless. That's way up from 1,739 the year before.

Carol Shikada, director of the DOE's Student Support Branch, couldn't outline the reasons behind the dramatic increase in homeless children, or say how much of the jump is related to more outreach versus worsening homelessness.

The DOE has worked to improve its outreach to homeless families in the wake of a 2008 federal lawsuit alleging homeless children around the state were being denied equal access to public education.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, states are required to provide transportation to and from school and allow homeless families to choose which school they would prefer their child to attend.

In Hawaii, homeless children also qualify for free meals and tutoring.

Shikada said throughout the enrollment process, parents are given the opportunity to identify themselves as homeless so their children are eligible for services.

Some parents opt not to tell schools they are homeless because of the stigma involved, she added.

Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikiki Health Center, pointed out that the questionnaires used for the UH Center report were largely collected when a family is moving into a shelter from the streets.

"When kids are unsheltered, and it's precarious about what their living situation is, it's hard for parents" to send their kids to school, she said. "Once they enter the shelter system, they (shelter personnel) quickly work to get them into school."






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