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Hawaii News

Isle homeless advocates cite gains in cutting numbers needing shelter

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A resident’s bicycle leans against a converted shipping container, home to three people at the Hale Mauliola homeless shelter at Sand Island. The shelter, operated by the Institute for Human Services, opened last year.

Despite lingering encampments across the state, social workers and state and city officials insist Hawaii is making progress reducing the nation’s highest per capita rate of homelessness.

“The community is really frustrated,” said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing. “We share that frustration. … But we are delivering results.”

The number of homeless across Hawaii fell 9 percent in the annual, national homeless survey conducted in January — the first statewide decrease in eight years. Oahu represented the only island that saw an increase — of 19 people.

At the same time, Alexander said, Los Angeles saw a 24 percent jump in its homeless population, while Portland, Ore., and Seattle had nearly double-digit increases.

“We’re staying focused on the solution, which is housing,” Alexander said. “A lot of cities are being distracted by things that don’t work, like safe zones, where we are laser focused on housing, whether Housing First or making units available.”

At the same time, hospitals are funding specialty shelters aimed at specific homeless populations, such as homeless veterans and those well enough to be discharged from expensive hospital beds but not healthy enough to heal on the street.

The city:

>> is buying apartment buildings to house Oahu’s homeless;

>> has opened Hale Mauliola, a homeless shelter on Sand Island made from converted shipping containers;

>> is refurbishing a four-story building in Iwilei to create a homeless hygiene center.

Businessman Duane Kurisu plans to open his Kahauiki Village near Sand Island to house homeless working families. Businesswoman Vicky Cayetano, Hawaii’s former first lady, who founded a commercial cleaning business, has pledged to hire Kahauiki Village residents who want to work.

Kurisu — founder and chairman of the aio Group — also serves on the board of directors of Oahu Publications Inc., parent company of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“We’ve come a long way in the past year,” said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator. “We need to continue to focus on that.”

This year, the state implemented new shelter contracts designed to get people out of shelter beds faster and focused on increasing their incomes and getting them into permanent housing.

“We’re giving providers the tools they need,” Morishige said.

And social service agencies are now working together from the same lists of homeless people in their communities to target services to their specific needs.

“All of us who are in the homeless services arena have been embracing what we consider best practices, permanent supportive housing, coordinated entry,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, Hawaii’s largest shelter.

But there is still plenty of work to be done.

On Hawaii island, which saw a 32 percent drop in its homeless population, “homelessness exists because there is a failure of systems,” said Brandee Menino, chairwoman of Bridging the Gap, which organized the homeless count on the neighbor islands.

“There are so many entry points into homelessness: poverty, new parents, under-employment, domestic violence, seriously mentally ill, addiction issues,” Menino said. “We’ve got to figure out how to stop that, to stop the bleeding.”

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