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Oahu homelessness has gotten ‘worse’ in past year, poll finds

Homelessness has gotten “worse” on Oahu in the past 12 months, according to a whopping 67% of registered voters.

“All over, it’s gotten worse,” said Marissa Chargualaf, a 29-year-old mother of two children — ages 8 and 10 — who lives in Kalihi. “I say it’s worse in Kalihi. But it’s definitely gotten worse all over.”

The official annual homeless census, known as the nationwide Point in Time Count, does not match the dramatic response that was measured in The Hawaii Poll.

But the results of The Hawaii Poll do reflect the ongoing frustration that likely voters have of homelessness across Oahu.

At the same time, several people who responded to The Hawaii Poll were quick to acknowledge that their opinions could be the result of ongoing homeless sweeps by state and city law enforcement that continue to push homeless encampments into new and different areas.

Or, as Andrea Bell, 74, of Kailua put it:

“They get chased out and then they come back again,” she said. “You just can’t keep moving them from place to place. We can’t seem to turn the corner on the homeless issue.”

Officially, Oahu’s homeless situation was little changed last year. The Point in Time Count measured a scant increase of 0.7% in January 2020 compared with January 2019, with a total of 4,448 people without homes.

At the same time, the neighbor islands’ overall homeless population in January also went up by a similar 1%. With 2,010 homeless people counted on the neighbor islands, Hawaii’s entire homeless population stood at 6,458 as of January.

Still, there is progress.

In 2019, Hawaii lost its unenviable distinction of having the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country, to New York.

Despite an overall 0.7% increase in homelessness this year, the 2,346 people living “unsheltered” across Oahu in January — or essentially on the street — fell 2% from the year before. Those living on the street represented 53% of Oahu’s homeless population and generated many of Oahu’s homeless complaints.

Other encouraging signs on Oahu were the 7% drop in homeless families, 8% decline in homeless children and 7% reduction in homeless veterans.

Overall, compared with 2015, Oahu has seen a 48% drop in homeless families, 45% decline in homeless children and 24% reduction in homeless veterans.

Still, despite positive gains in many categories, people responding to the Hawaii Poll have a different perception of homelessness on Oahu. Only 7% of respondents believed that homelessness has gotten “better.” Another 25% believe the situation is the “same.”

Men, however, are more pessimistic: 72% of them believe homelessness has gotten “worse” over the last 12 months compared with 62% of women.

And among men and women age 50 or older, 73% believe homelessness has gotten worse across the island compared with 60% of people below the age of 50.

There is essentially no statistical differences among ethnic groups — or between Democrats, Republicans or Independents — who believe that homelessness has gotten “worse.”

Despite the January numbers, the entire country’s homeless population is expected to see a surge in the coming months and years because of rampant unemployment triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, just as it did following the 18-month Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.

“Yes, yes, it is going to get worse,” said Joe Gomes, 66, of Waianae.

Gomes, clinical director of the Waianae Coast Mental Health clinic, works with homeless clients and is bracing to see more of them in the months ahead across Oahu.

“With the economic situation and the COVID situation, it’s going to get worse,” Gomes said. “It’s not only in Hawaii; it’s nationwide.”

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