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Editorial: Prepare now for more homeless

The results of the annual “Point in Time” count of Hawaii’s homeless is in, and the perishable nature of such data is evident. Hawaii is living through an entirely different point in time due to the coronavirus pandemic, in which further expansion of the homeless population is looming.

That census was taken Jan. 22, when the disease caused by the virus hadn’t even been dubbed COVID-19. Then, Oahu’s homeless count increased by 0.7%, to 4,448; the neighbor islands’ unsheltered population rose by 1%.

Accuracy of the tally is often limited by the number of volunteers available, the willingness of the houseless to be interviewed and other factors, but the Point-in-Time at least is a series of snapshots, which over time has shown some slight reduction in numbers living in the streets.

Now, of course, Hawaii is fully familiar with the COVID-19 name, its potentially fatal effects — and the economic drubbing the state has taken from the months-long shutdown.

About a third of the state’s population is unemployed, many people still waiting for their benefits, as landlords are knocking at the door for delinquent rent payments. At some point in the near future, some could even find themselves on the streets.

It’s now critical that leaders marshal available resources as homelessness worsens, in the hope of heading off some of that deterioration.

Fortunately, funds from the federal CARES Act are available for Hawaii homelessness needs. One allotment is a $2.6 million federal grant to The Institute for Human Services to open a triage care center for the chronically homeless.

Facing community opposition, IHS has shelved plans to build it at the originally proposed site in Chinatown, but is still exploring alternative sites, said Connie Mitchell, the nonprofit agency’s executive director.

This is encouraging, given that the concept itself is still needed. The center is meant as a place to address the most critical health needs of a homeless person in a place easily accessible to them, Mitchell said, and after an assessment, directs clients to further treatment or services.

The impetus for treating the most vulnerable unsheltered people during a pandemic is self-evident: Getting the chronically homeless off the streets lowers the risk that they can become factors in the wider spread of the disease.

That said, it is right that the agency is working more closely with the community to address any concerns residents have about potential impacts on the neighborhood. IHS has indicated that this would not be another center for distribution of food or walk-in services and thus would not be a “magnet” for people congregating — which is the last thing needed when social distancing is so crucial.

Further, Hawaii has been awarded more than $31 million in emergency CARES relief. Most of that comprises federal aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “to help homeless and low-income persons to regain stability in permanent housing,” said Hawaii’s U.S. Rep. Ed Case in an announcement last week.

That is precisely what is needed at this juncture, in which so many families, already having lived a paycheck away from homelessness, now have seen that paycheck disappear.

The money is envisioned as a resource to help the state stand up additional emergency shelters, offset operational costs for existing shelters, provide motel or hotel vouchers for homeless families and individuals and other services.

It’s now the duty of state and local lawmakers and officials to deliver this funding where it’s urgently needed. At this point in time, keeping more families housed is central to any rational pandemic recovery strategy.

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