* Updated May 1, 2023 · 8:52 AM
Results of the annual Big Island homeless count have been released for 2023, and officials say while they expected an increase, they didn’t expect it to be so big.
According to the Point-in-Time survey taken during the week of Jan. 23-27, Hawai‘i County experienced an overall increase of 167 homeless people — including sheltered and unsheltered — from a year ago. The numbers went from 837 to 1,004, an increase of 20%.
“You can’t avoid the reality and the suffering of our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, and that’s hard,” said Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place in Puna, the only family shelter in Puna. “These are real people with real stories.”
The survey was conducted by Hope Services Hawaiʻi as well as the Community Alliance Partners, a coalition to end homelessness on Hawaii Island. The coalition has several members, including service providers, government representatives, and community volunteers. Hope Services and Neighborhood Place in Puna are both members of the coalition.
And these results are just the people that volunteers and field staff were able to document during the five days its field staff and volunteers took to the streets, parks, beaches, bushes and parking lots looking for people to take the survey. Itʻs not known how many more homeless people were not counted.
But the data that was collected provides insight into how many people were homeless on a given night — and why. This year, outreach staff and volunteers asked people: “Where did you sleep on January 22?”
Sheltered homelessness — including families and individuals — decreased slightly by four people from 283 to 279. But unsheltered homeless increased by 171 people (31%) bringing the total number to 725.
When asked what led to their current homelessness, the most prevalent response was a family or relationship conflict, followed by the inability to pay rent.
“Nobody is happy with having homeless people on the street, but there’s no place where the homeless can become housed or even have shelter,” Normann said. “This lack [of shelters] forces them to be out there.”
During their January count in Kailua-Kona, staff and volunteers of Hope Services Hawai‘i encountered several individuals and some families without a roof over their head. One of those families — a mom, dad, toddler and large dog— slept in a car at the Kmart parking lot.
Some good news. The total number of homeless families dropped to 55 from 66 in 2002. There were three fewer unsheltered families and eight fewer sheltered families.
With numbers in the Point-in-Time count showing a decrease in unsheltered families, Normann said he’s hopeful they’ll continue to make progress on sheltering families.
“Our community and government have prioritized addressing family and child homelessness,” said Normann, who also is the chair of Community Alliance Partners. “We know children who experience homelessness are likely to experience it as adults. It’s really important to break that cycle.”
The Point-In-Time counts have been conducted statewide since 2011, with Community Alliance Partners, Hope Services Hawai‘i and community volunteers conducting Hawaiʻi Island’s count since 2018.
“The annual count is an integral part of local planning and serves to support policy and resource allocation decisions,” said Sharon Hirota, community engagement division manager with Hawai‘i County’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “It also helps the County and service providers track progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.”
While the 20% increase in unsheltered individuals on Hawai‘i Island is unfortunate, Hirota said it’s not surprising.
Over the last two years in Hawai’i County, housing inventories have shrunk and rental rates have soared, leading to many people being unable to find a home they can afford.
“As a county and community, we need to recognize that homelessness is a social problem that we need to address collectively,” Normann said.
This includes finding solutions to housing projects that have stalled due to the lack of timely permitting.
County officials say the results of the survey provide concrete data that justifies the county’s need to continue moving forward with its plan to increase affordable housing.
The county’s Strategic Roadmap for Homelessness and Housing outlines what the county needs to do and carry out to address these numbers.
“Staying focused on the plan while also gleaning data from critical reports like the Point-In-Time Count will help the County to meet its goal of ending homelessness on Hawaiʻi Island,” Hirota said.
Hawai’i County Housing Administrator Susan Kunz said the county has worked to fill the pipeline with viable developments for the future. When Mayor Mitch Roth took office in 2020, there were just more than 1,000 units in development but not completed.
“Today, the pipeline boasts 5,767 units in various stages of development thanks to collaborative efforts across multiple departments to increase the supply of affordable housing in Hawaiʻi County,” Kunz said.
By the end of 2023, the administration anticipates 369 units will have been completed. Additionally, construction is expected to begin for 515 affordable housing units in 2023.
According to the Office of Housing and Community Development, the Waikōloa Family Affordable project with 110 rental units in Waikōloa Village will be the next project completed — by summer.
Hirota said the county is confident that its ongoing programs and unprecedented investment in addressing homelessness and affordable housing through the establishment of the Homelessness and Housing Fund and Affordable Housing Production Program will help to reduce the number of residents experiencing homelessness.
Click here to view the full results of the Point-in-Time count survey.
Editor’s note: This story was edited to accurately reflect the title of Paul Normann as well the involvement of the Community Alliance Partners in the annual Point-in-Time survey.