The number of homeless on Oahu is up by about 15 percent — or 533 people — from 2009, according to a new "point-in-time" count that providers say highlights the need for continued attention to one of the biggest social crises in the state.
Some 4,171 homeless people were counted on Oahu, 1,374 of whom were unsheltered, the survey showed.
The increases on Oahu were offset by big decreases on the Big Island, where the unsheltered homeless population declined by half last year to 313, and on Maui, where the sheltered population dropped by about 30.
Altogether, the count — designed to represent a rough estimate of homeless people statewide at a given point in time — shows there are about 5,834 unsheltered and sheltered in the islands, a 1 percent increase from last year.
Volunteers and providers fanned out across the state the night of Jan. 25 to conduct the point-in-time survey, which differs from other counts based on averages. And the study acknowledges that not all homeless people in the state were counted, since outreach workers knew of people living in "mountains, caves and bushes" but did not count them because of safety concerns.
Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, said he thinks the Oahu unsheltered counts missed a good number of people.
He added that new camping rules and night closing at parks mean the homeless are moving into less accessible places or are moving more often.
"It makes it harder to do our outreach services," he said, adding that many of the new homeless people he has seeing are victims of the economy, after either losing their job or seeing their hours cut.
"So many I talk to were living on the edge — people living one or two paychecks away from being homeless," he said.
The report also shows a shift in where unsheltered people are staying.
The highest number of unsheltered homeless is still on the Waianae Coast, where 410 (including 28 families with children) were counted. That is down from 532 counted in 2007.
There were 394 unsheltered homeless counted in downtown this year (up from 312 in 2009), and 307 counted in East Honolulu (from 254 last year).
The increase on Oahu comes as lawmakers are calling for new solutions to address the problem.
Over the past several years, the state has spent upward of $40 million to open emergency and transitional homeless shelters — especially on the Waianae Coast — to tackle homelessness.
Russ Saito, state comptroller and the governor’s special adviser on homelessness, said the state is now trying to focus on creating more affordable housing.
"We already have shelters," Saito said. "Now what we’ve got to focus on is just creating affordable units."
Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikiki Health Center, which provides outreach and medical services to homeless people islandwide, said the numbers are not surprising, given the economic downturn.
"On the whole, what I take from this is there’s still a real need to ensure that we have good services," she said, adding that it is key to make sure people placed in shelters make the next step into permanent housing.
The report also counted the chronic homeless, who made up more than one-third of the unsheltered population on Oahu. Statewide there are about 705 chronically homeless people.
In Kakaako yesterday outreach worker Cindy Gilman and social worker Sharon Malloy, both with Waikiki Health Center’s Care-a-Van program, offered food and services to homeless people in the area.
"Are you doing good?" Gilman asked Sharon Isadora Rose, 52, who has been homeless for nine years.
"I’m alive," Rose replied, laughing.
Nearby, Donald Jackson sat on an air mattress, eating a cheese sandwich given to him by a church group. The 63-year-old has been on the streets for a decade, ever since moving here from Oregon.
He recycles cans for money and gets food stamps. He has tried living in shelters, but it did not work out, he said.
"It’s not that hard" to live on the streets, he said. "You’ve just got to work for it."