Homeless ranks shrink statewide, islandwide for second straight year

  • A person sleeps on the beach early March 7 in Kailua Village. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Homelessness in Hawaii has taken a nosedive for the second consecutive year, according to the 2018 statewide Point In Time Count Report conducted in January and released Monday morning.

While the count is inexact — coordinated by volunteers under the direction of Hawaii’s Continua of Care and largely reliant on self-reporting from within the homeless community — it provides a relative snapshot of homelessness, including demographic information as well as sheltered and unsheltered counts.

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“This validates that our comprehensive program for reducing homelessness is working,” Gov. David Ige said in a press release Monday. “Our focus on Housing First, putting homeless individuals in permanent housing and offering services is decreasing homelessness across the board.”

“We stayed the course and gave our programs time to build momentum, and now we are seeing the results,” he continued.

The Legislature appropriated $50 million for new and existing homelessness initiatives in the 2018 session, the largest financial allocation in its history. The state has long held the dubious distinction as home to the highest per capita homelessness rate in the country.

This year, Hawaii saw a 9.6 percent decrease in overall homelessness compared with a 9 percent decrease the year before. In 2018, the actual number of homeless people living in the state dropped from 7,220 to 6,530, a reduction of 690 individuals. Two years ago, the overall homeless population fell from 7,921 individuals to 7,220, a total of 701 people.

Three years past, the number of homeless in Hawaii increased, but at a slower rate than the previous seven years — all of which saw homeless numbers rise, bringing about the onset of the so-called crisis that ensued.

Kauai led the way in 2018, boasting a 28.9 percent reduction in homelessness, followed by Oahu with a 9.4 percent drop and Hawaii Island with an 8.8 percent decrease.

Specific counts showed a statewide drop in unsheltered homeless of 8.6 percent, while family homelessness fell by 10.6 percent and the number of chronically homeless people decreased by 4.8 percent.

Big Island tally

Compared to 2017, Hawaii County’s homelessness reduction was considerably more modest.

Hawaii Island cut its homeless population by nearly a third two years ago, taking the number down to 953 from an all-time high of 1,394.

This January, volunteers counted 869 homeless, a reduction of 84 people. Homeless ranks were scattered across the island but 174 homeless individuals were counted in North Kona, the most of any district. Volunteers tallied 168 in South Hilo and 133 in Ka‘u.

Eight homeless people were found in North Kohala, while only three were counted in North Hilo, the two lightest homeless districts.

“We’re definitely happy with the numbers showing that it’s decreasing (overall),” said Brandee Menino, chief executive officer of Hope Services Hawaii. “It’s really showing us a temperature check — that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Menino attributed the more dramatic increase from two years ago to a shift in approach at that time to a Housing First model with an emphasis on harm reduction throughout all programs initiated by all partners on Hawaii Island. Service providers re-trained together and redefined best practices.

Housing development also brought some 200 units online during that year, which she said played a significant role.

It wasn’t all good news for the Big Island, however. All but 200 of the county’s homeless were unsheltered. That population dropped by only 1.3 percent from 2017 to 2018 — the worst results in the state, though still trending in the desired direction, save for one important demographic.

“One of our disappointments is we did see an increase in family homelessness in the unsheltered count for our island,” Menino said.

She attributed this to several factors, noting that rural areas are underserved and thus Ka‘u struggled most with family homelessness of all Hawaii County districts. The geography of the Big Island makes this type of service difficult, as there are only six outreach workers servicing the entire county and their efforts are primarily centered in Kona and Hilo.

There’s also only one emergency shelter specifically for families, which is located in Hilo.

Part of the Legislature’s appropriations in 2018 are earmarked for a family assessment center, which Hawaii County has its eyes on.

“That’s not targeted for any particular island, so we have to fight for that resource for our community,” Menino said. “We are going to advocate and pitch that for Kona.”

Another initiative the state intends to fund is an ohana zones program, with at least one zone heading for Hawaii Island. Menino said such initiatives take awhile to get off the ground, though, adding she doesn’t see an ohana zone having a significant impact on homelessness reduction in the coming year.

However, Menino said the Coordinated Statewide Homelessness Initiative funded this session, which provides rental assistance to help families on the verge of eviction, may well keep more people indoors over the next months and years.

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“We’re getting good at housing placements and moving people into housing quicker — that’s what the data is showing,” Menino said. “But we’re also seeing the number of people entering our system (at) the same rate.”

“We need to figure out why people are falling into homelessness and (stop it),” she continued.