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Unsheltered homeless in Hawaii to go uncounted amid COVID-19

A wave of rising homelessness is expected to wash over Hawaii in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, yet any increase this year won’t be measured because an annual survey has been called off due to COVID-19.

The annual census of the unsheltered homeless population statewide, conducted by outreach workers as part of the national Point in Time Count, is typically carried out in January with results reported several months later.

But this year because of COVID-19 health risks, the survey won’t be done, according to Laura E. Thielen, executive director of the local homeless service coordination alliance Partners in Care.

“This is due to health and safety concerns that we have, due to the fact that we have over 100 individuals that assist with this count,” she said, noting that federal officials authorized a waiver to skip this year’s count.

“It includes an extensive survey that we do face to face with clients,” Thielen said. “We did not feel that this was a safe time to do the Point in Time Count.”

The public will know how many homeless are in shelters, but most homeless in Hawaii are unsheltered.

Thielen was speaking to a joint state House and Senate committee Wednesday, during which participating lawmakers received a grim prediction about a coming rise in homelessness but also were informed about ongoing successes in finding transitionary and permanent housing for the unsheltered amid the pandemic.

Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, told the Senate Committee on Human Services and House Committee on Health, Human Services and Homelessness that he expects the size of the surge will top a 37% increase that stretched over several years following the 2008 Great Recession.

Most of that prior rise occurred from 2014 to 2016, reaching a peak of about 8,000 people statewide who were unsheltered or in emergency or transitionary shelters. Then from 2017 the count subsided and more or less stabilized at about 6,500 people at the beginning of last year.

The 37% increase represented 2,100 more individuals among the homeless, and the greatest increase was on Oahu, where the homeless population roughly doubled with the addition of 1,200 people.

A new surge may not be immediate because of an ongoing state moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent and government aid that includes rental assistance to households whose finances have been hurt by impacts from COVID-19.

But Morishige anticipates that the coming expansion of homelessness will be bigger than the last one.

“It’s not just a sudden one-time spike, but it’s going to occur gradually over a longer period of time and probably on a greater level of magnitude than what we have encountered previously,” he said.

Morishige also told lawmakers that homeless service providers are continuing to up their game, and that work must continue to address the chronic issue.

“It might seem that a lot of what I’m sharing is grim about what we can expect moving forward, but the trend data also did show some bright spots,” he said.

The decline in the past few years was one positive thing, and recent projects to provide the homeless with housing are another.

A focus since 2017 placed on channeling the homeless into permanent housing has been a large part of the progress, according to Morishige, who said this needs to continue.

“Understanding what contributed to the recent decrease will be helpful to understand how we can mitigate or reverse any future increases we see that are tied to the pandemic,” he said.

Among recent projects providing shelter to the homeless have been 90 beds in two Hawaii island hotels used as emergency shelters. Hawaii County officials also built 50 micro-housing units, including some that were set up in a public pool parking lot.

On Maui, similar microunits measuring 8 feet by 8 feet were erected in a county park as a transition to permanent housing. Maui County also is spending about $6 million in state funds to fix up a dilapidated University of Hawaii Maui College dorm for 12 families. This project is expected to be finished in the next two months.

On Kauai, government leaders established camping zones at five beach parks serving 283 individuals, and a 21-unit affordable-housing project called Kealaula on Pua Loke was built for families who are transitioning out of homelessness and pay $500 to $700 a month in rent.

Efforts on Oahu have included the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage facility set up in Keehi Lagoon Beach Park with more than 100 tents. This facility, according to city officials, had served roughly 500 homeless as of September after opening in April, with many moving on to longer-term shelters or permanent housing.

On the downside, congregate homeless shelters around the state had to reduce their capacity to reduce risks for spreading COVID-19.

“Homelessness was a crisis before the pandemic,” Thielen said. “So we are not only dealing with a crisis of a pandemic. We have a crisis within a pandemic.”

“This is unprecedented times,” added Brandee Menino, chairwoman of the all-volunteer organization Bridging the Gap serving the neighbor islands. “We must continue to work with urgency.”

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