PAHOA — When volunteers approached a sleepy Ronnell Deroso on Wednesday morning offering water and snacks, he hoarsely replied, “water.”
It was just after 5 a.m. and the 38-year-old was slouched below a darkened downtown Pahoa storefront.
Deroso sipped from the plastic water bottle as coqui frogs chirped in the background. He said he’s been continually homeless about three months, after leaving a nearby shelter.
“I went through a separation with my ex about a year ago,” Deroso said when asked more about his situation. “She has the house and everything.”
Deroso was among the hundreds of Hawaii Island residents counted during the past week through the nationwide Homeless Point in Time Count.
The count is conducted each year to determine the current number of sheltered and unsheltered people by asking participants where they slept on a single night in January. It is required of any jurisdiction that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This year, the Hawaii Island count began Jan. 23 and ended Monday. Each morning, hours before the sun rose, teams working with HOPE Services — the island’s largest provider of services for the homeless — combed through East Hawaii looking for people sleeping on sidewalks, curled on benches and camping below storefronts. They scoured Keaukaha beach parks for signs of life and drove up the Hamakua Coast looking for fogged up windows — an indicator of someone sleeping in their car.
Teams even wove through expansive subdivisions of Puna to find squatters — people residing on properties they do not own.
“Good morning, we’re doing our annual Point in Time Count, did you sleep here last night?” HOPE Services employee Justine Erickson asked a 20-something woman curled in her car early Wednesday morning in the parking lot of a downtown Pahoa food market.
The woman, appearing groggy, cracked her door open a bit wider as Erickson explained the survey and resources available at HOPE Services.
“Thank you so much,” the woman replied.
Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness nationally, though the numbers appear to be improving. Last year, there were 953 people counted on Hawaii Island, down from 1,394 in 2016 and 1,241 in 2015. Statewide, there were 7,220 people counted last year, down from 7,921 in 2016 and 7,620 in 2015. Data for 2018 will be available later in the year.
Janice Ikeda, director of operations for HOPE Services, said the drop can be attributed to multiple factors including additional training for those conducting the count — which improves surveying accuracy — along with a more “streamlined process (at HOPE Services) to place people faster into housing.”
This year’s survey also was drafted with fewer questions, an effort to garner more participation. Questions include how long a person has been continually homeless, their race and birth date and whether they have a substance abuse problem or a disability.
Past data shows about one-third of Hawaii Island’s homeless are children and about 8 percent are veterans, according to HOPE Services’ website, while 42 percent are families and 7 percent are seniors. About 21 percent have a substance abuse disability and about 33 percent are mentally ill. Data also show 54 percent have lived in Hawaii at least a decade.
Last year, 26 percent of homeless individuals were in Hilo, the largest percentage on the island and unchanged from 2016. Another 20 percent were in Ka‘u, a jump from 6 percent in 2016, and 19 percent were in Kealakehe, compared with 20 percent the year prior. Pahoa accounted for 13 percent last year compared to 11 percent in 2016, and Keaau accounted for 11 percent in 2017 compared to 5 percent in 2016.
Email Kirsten Johnson at email@example.com.