Hawaii, which already has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in America, saw its homeless population jump another 4 percent between January 2015 and January 2016, but officials revealing the data see signs of progress.
Statewide, the numbers went from 7,620 homeless people to 7,921, representing the fifth annual increase since 2011, according to Partners in Care and Bridging the Gap, which on Wednesday released the results of the annual nationwide survey conducted the week of Jan. 25.
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To read the full Point in Time Count, visit 808ne.ws/293ZtGI.
“We want to see the numbers go down, obviously,” said Marc Gannon, chairman of Partners in Care.
Federal officials in the fall are expected to review all of the homeless counts from around the country and determine whether Hawaii still leads the nation in per capita homeless.
During the week of Jan. 25, volunteers fanned out along Hawaii’s beaches, bushes and homeless encampments to ask one question, Gannon said.
“’Where did you sleep on the night of Jan. 24, 2016?’ That simple question … resulted in the statewide Point in Time Count of 7,921 homeless persons,” Gannon said.
At a news conference announcing the numbers, Gannon said positive signs contained in the data “further validates the need for continued coordination and collaboration across the board,” adding, “We all have the responsibility to come together and work together to address this issue.”
Gannon was optimistic at the fact that Hawaii saw only a 4 percent increase compared with the year before, when the numbers increased by 10 percent. Between 2013 and 2014, the numbers had jumped by 9 percent.
In this year’s count, Oahu saw an increase of 37 additional homeless people, representing a gain of less than 1 percent. Oahu’s overall homeless population grew from 4,903 last year to 4,940 this year.
Homeless people who were counted in 2015 and again last January are considered “repeaters.”
And Gannon said it’s “significant” that 14 percent of the Oahu repeaters were located in town, compared with 38 percent in Waianae, which had the greatest concentration of repeaters.
In a statement, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said: “While even a 1 percent increase in overall homelessness on Oahu is frustrating, the current Point in Time Count shows less of an increase than previous years. This is a direct result of the city’s expansion of the Housing First program, the innovative Hale Mauliola Housing Navigation Center at Sand Island, our efforts with homeless veterans and our property acquisitions.”
He continued: “Working with the City Council, we are investing in properties from Makiki to Waianae, and just purchased a four-story warehouse in Iwilei for a new drop-in hygiene center and units for the chronically homeless. Meanwhile, our relentless enforcement efforts to keep sidewalks, parks and other public areas free of encampments and stored property has improved the effectiveness of outreach efforts for homeless service providers.”
Council Chairman Ernie Martin said in a statement that “the numbers seem to indicate a more stable situation on Oahu, but it is disappointing to see even a slight increase in our homeless population,” adding, “It’s tough to see families living in tents on the side of the road while we build more high-end and market-rate housing. We need tens of thousands of affordable units to effectively reduce the number of people living on the street, a number that has risen every year since 2009. Permanent supportive housing built by private and nonprofit developers can dramatically increase our inventory of affordable housing for families earning less than 50 percent of the area median income.”
The neighbor islands, which have much smaller numbers of homeless people compared to Oahu, also saw their homeless populations increase. On Kauai, the tally shot up by 30 percent.
But Maude Cumming, chairwoman of Bridging the Gap, which handled neighbor island data, said the 103 additional people counted on the Garden Isle was the result of more people being identified through increased social service outreach efforts “rather than a natural increase in numbers.”
Like Kauai, Hawaii island also saw better cooperation among social service providers and greater outreach that counted 153 more people this year — representing a 12 percent increase in the Big Island’s homeless count, Cumming said.
“In both places there is unprecedented collaboration,” she said.
On Hawaii island, surveyors also counted people who were living in tents on family-owned property “who, by definition, meet the criteria” of being homeless, Cumming said. “They met the definition, so they were counted.”
Maui’s homeless population increased by eight people to 1,145, representing a gain of less than 1 percent.
On Maui, Cumming said, “We’re doing a better job of transitioning families into permanent housing, especially from shelters.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, and his counterpart for the city, Jun Yang, both said that the combined efforts to find housing for 747 homeless veterans on Oahu since January 2015 represent a model for reducing Hawaii’s overall homeless population.
“It’s a significant sign of the progress we’ve made,” Morishige said. “We need to continue to focus on the big picture.”
Yang said the efforts of outreach workers have resulted in the tracking of 220 currently homeless veterans on Oahu, who are being encouraged to move off the street.
In his statement, Caldwell said, “I’m grateful to see a 12 percent decrease in homeless veterans on Oahu, in part due to our intense effort with Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness.”
He added: “Going into this Independence Day weekend, we are reminded of our duty to support those who have served our nation, and I’m proud of the success of this partnership with the first lady, HUD and the VA, local landlords and Oahu service providers to help our veterans off city streets. Through our dedicated service providers, we will keep reaching out to former service members who are in need of help.”
Andrew Dahlburg, homeless program manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, said “it’s no accident” that the efforts to help homeless veterans on Oahu paid off. The same persistent effort is being applied across the islands and across all segments of Hawaii’s homeless.
“We all have our eyes on the ball,” Dahlburg said.
Leah Bartolome, a 64-year-old veteran of the Army, Navy and National Guard, cried as she spoke at the news conference about her journey out of homelessness that ended in November when she moved into a 600-square-foot studio apartment at Beretania Street and Kalakaua Avenue through a VA housing voucher.
And Tuesday, Bartolome got a part-time job doing maintenance work around her new home. “I got responsibilities now,” Bartolome told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with a laugh.
But when it came to the topic of Hawaii’s growing homeless population, Bartolome grew serious.
“That’s too many people to be homeless,” she said. “How come the numbers can’t go down?”
Then in the next moment, Bartolome answered her own question, contending that the ongoing efforts will have little effect on individuals who do not want to leave the street.
“They have to want to change,” Bartolome said. “You can’t do it for them.”