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Number of homeless in Hawaii shelters fewest in 10 years

The 2021 Point-in-Time Count of people living in homeless shelters showed a significant decrease compared with previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the amount of available shelter space, to account for social distancing.

Partners in Care, Oahu’s planning body that coordinates housing and services for homeless individuals, usually conducts a Point-in-Time Count of homeless individuals on a single night in January every year. Due to COVID-19 the unsheltered count was canceled for 2021.

The 2021 shelter Point-in-Time Count totaled 1,853 individuals who made up 1,065 households. The count included those in emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe havens — permanently supported housing for single, homeless adults with mental illness. That number was the lowest count for sheltered people in at least 10 years.

Partners in Care Executive Director Laura E. Thielen explained that social distancing for public health reasons during the pandemic was the reason shelter space likely decreased.

“A lot of that is due to the fact that there has to be depopulation of congregate shelters during COVID,” she said.

“They all had to decrease their numbers to reflect the CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines of proper distancing during COVID.”

However, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, Scott Morishige, pointed out that the Point-in-Time Count was taken right as federal CARES act funds ran out and before new funds were available.

“I think that Point-in-Time Count numbers don’t really reflect the efforts to ramp up capacity during the height of the pandemic,” he said.

“I think it was in this kind of transition period.”

He added that not all shelters were included in the count, as grassroots efforts that do not utilize any government funds sometimes do not report their capacity to Partners in Care.

As the city has opened up, the shelters that were forced to decrease their capacity to accommodate social distancing are beginning to reopen.

At the height of the pandemic, the Institute of Human Services was operating at only about 50% of its normal capacity. Now its women’s shelter is at full capacity; its family shelters and shelters for single men are at 65% capacity.

A second Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons location, which uses inflatable tents to offer services to unsheltered individuals and families 24 hours a day, opened up in Wahiawa last month, adding another 40 beds to the island’s shelter capacity as well.

Thielen said there are still few openings at shelters, and that is how it always has been, even before the pandemic.

“Most of the shelters, over the last couple months, have started ramping back up to their original numbers or finding other spaces to accommodate people,” she said.

“So hopefully, we’ll have a really good understanding in the next month or so once things really open up.”

For those who are able to secure a spot at a shelter, the placement rate for permanent housing is about 55%, which Morishige said was good when compared with other states.

Although without a Point-in-Time Count, it is impossible to know whether the number of unsheltered individuals has increased, Honolulu’s director of housing and homelessness, Anton Krucky, thought it was likely.

“With COVID we lost beds in the shelters because we had to spread out,” he said.

“Some may have gone into housing, but probably the other way back to the street. So COVID contributed to the unsheltered homeless in the street.”

Morishige could not say definitively that there has been an increase in homeless individuals, but acknowledged that homelessness has become more visible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“When everything shut down, a lot of the places where homeless individuals would go to spend time during the day, for example, the state library,” were also closed, he said.

“All those places are not accessible, and many of those places are still closed to the public.”

During the pandemic Gov. David Ige placed a moratorium on evictions which is set to expire Aug. 6.

Morishige is not expecting a sudden increase in homelessness once it is lifted. Instead, he anticipates a gradual increase over several years if mitigation efforts by the state, city and providers are not effective.

“It’s very difficult to know what the exact impact of the lifting of the eviction moratorium is going to be,” he said.

“I think it’s likely that over a period of time, we’re going to see a slow, gradual increase in homelessness if we’re not able to effectively utilize all the resources coming in the community. … Our providers are just working to make sure that we can place people rapidly into housing if they’re experiencing homelessness, and also making sure people are taking advantage of the eviction prevention moneys.”

He pointed to the last major economic recession, when Hawaii did not see a one-time spike, but a gradual increase in homelessness. Over a seven-year period between 2009 and 2016, the number of homeless people in the Point-in-Time Count increased about 37%.

IHS Community Relations Director Jill Wright explained there will likely be a cushion of time for most people struggling to afford housing between when the moratorium is lifted and when they go to a homeless shelter.

“What we see typically is that folks who are in that situation, first they’ll try to find their friends or their family or other places, maybe to double up for a little while,” she said.

“So they don’t sort of get kicked out, and immediately come to shelter in most cases.”

She didn’t expect to see an impact on shelter capacity until closer to the end of the year.

The city is trying to alleviate the impact of the eviction moratorium being lifted through its Rental and Utility Relief program, which aims to distribute $114 million in federal funds to households in need by the end of the year. The program was recently expanded to include families and individuals making less than 80% of the area’s annual median income, which is $100,700 a year for a family of four.

Partners in Care’s program Oahu Housing Now is trying to distribute the millions of dollars’ worth of new housing vouchers becoming available and searching for landlords to participate.

However, Krucky emphasized the need for communities to allow for projects to target Oahu’s housing problem, such as building more affordable units.

“You have to work with neighborhoods. We can’t build a village unless the neighborhood lets us do it,” he said.

“That complicates things. It’s hard to do affordable housing if a neighborhood won’t let you put affordable housing in.”

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