Dan, a homeless person in Kona, questioned the validity of the Point in Time Count numbers released by the state. Laura Ruminski/ West Hawaii Today





Iwalani and Richard have seen an increase of new faces recently at the homeless camps in Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)





May 11, 2017 By Max Dible West Hawaii Today mdible@westhawaiitoday.com

KAILUA-KONA — The homeless population in Hawaii has declined for the first time in nearly a decade, according to a report released by the state Wednesday.

The state’s Point in Time Count — a volunteer-administered, self-reported homeless tally — registered a 9 percent decrease in homelessness statewide. In 2016, the state reported 7,921 homeless individuals across all counties. That number fell to 7,220 in 2017.

The dip follows eight consecutive years marked by steady rises within Hawaii’s most vulnerable community, which led Gov. David Ige to declare a state of emergency around the issue in October of 2015.

Hawaii Island led the way with a 32 percent decrease in its homeless population. The county tallied 953 homeless people in 2017, down 441 individuals from the all-time high of 1,394 counted in 2016. Hawaii County’s homeless had been growing at a higher rate per capita than every other county in the state.

“I’m just ecstatic about the progress made,” said Ige, who was on Hawaii Island Tuesday attending the Japan-Hawaii Economic Summit at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows. “I would never have guessed the Big Island numbers would have been the best improvement.”

The number of unsheltered homeless dropped 12 percent statewide, according to the report. Hawaii Island also led all counties in that regard, registering a 40 percent drop its unsheltered homeless population.

Some homeless in Kona questioned the validity of the numbers Wednesday, however.

“Maybe 40 percent more, not less,” said Iwalani and Richard, who often make camp on the beach at Old Airport Park. “There’s been a steady influx of new faces in just the last seven months or so. Our names are on the wait list at the (Office of Social Ministry), but there’s not enough rooms.”

Dan, another member of Kona’s homeless population who has been living outdoors for seven years, said he thinks it’s about money.

“Hell no!,” he said when asked if he thought the homeless numbers in Kona had fallen. “If they say the numbers are down then less money is allocated on it. They don’t want to say it’s a problem — figure if they drag their feet long enough maybe the (homeless) will leave.”

Linda Vandervoort, a community volunteer who works with HOPE Services Hawaii on the PIT Count and has in the past been funded in her work by Living Stones Church, warned that the numbers released Wednesday may create a false sense of security.

She said while the count appears encouraging, there is still a tangible, visible homelessness problem in Kona, particularly with unsheltered families. She said anecdotal evidence proves there is much yet to be done, and at the top of that list should be creating an emergency shelter for homeless families.

According to the PIT Count, homeless family individuals on Hawaii Island fell from 641 last year to 379 this year, with the number of unsheltered family individuals dropping from 460 to 196 during that span.

Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services Hawaii, agreed there’s still a long way to go but added based on her research, the PIT Count numbers released Wednesday stand up to the scrutiny. In fact, the progress may even be greater than the state’s report indicates.

“Actually, our database we are working on now that the entire community uses is showing even less homeless people than what’s in the report,” she said. “Our trends really are decreasing.”

Menino said 617 individuals in Hawaii County either moved directly off the street or out of emergency shelters into permanent housing last year. She added 58 families found housing through Section 8 vouchers, 45 families got off the street via federally funded tenant-based rental assistance, and the micro housing units built in the Old Industrial Area pulled 23 people out of homelessness.

Because of permanent housing options the emergency shelters at HOPE actually have around 10 vacancies, and she said she’s advised Mayor Harry Kim that there is inventory to help move homeless out of public areas and into shelters.

“What we’ve been seeing the last few months is actually less usage of the shelter than we’ve ever seen in the last five years,” Menino said.

Every county, save for Oahu, saw a decline in homelessness. Maui’s homeless population dropped 22 percent in the last year, while Kauai’s numbers fell by 7 percent. Oahu, where the lion’s share of homeless dollars are spent, noted an increase of o.4 percent.

“I do think one of the fundamental reasons that we’ve seen more success on the neighbor islands is that they’re obviously smaller communities and the service providers are more connected to each other,” Ige said. “We are making progress on Oahu … and I’m confident that we will see a consistent reduction statewide as we move forward.”

Ige credited several developments as playing important roles in the statewide decline, including collaboration between agencies at all levels of government, service providers and the private sector.

A focus on increased affordable rentals and housing statewide, and a push through a redefined contract system with service providers toward prioritizing permanent housing with supportive services like mental health and substance abuse counseling over emergency shelters have been tent poles of the state’s successful strategy, Ige said.

He added compartmentalizing services and creating a system that transitions someone from homelessness to rapid rehousing to permanent housing has been the catalyst.

The governor also noted a partnership with Aloha United Way, which provides rental or mortgage assistance to those at-risk for becoming homeless, reached nearly 5,000 people statewide and helped stem the rising tide of homelessness by stopping it before it starts.

All of this, he said, should provide for greater state investment in homelessness programs in the future and aid in the state’s goal of creating 10,000 new housing units by 2020.

The one area Ige noted disappointment involved Hawaii’s veterans. The homeless veteran count decreased by 8 percent statewide and 35 percent on neighbor islands, but was up 9 percent on Oahu.

“The veteran number is going up a little,” he said, adding it is possible based on the PIT Count’s limitations that the increase was due to under-reporting in that community last year. “But if it is an increase in veterans who are homeless, they definitely have made a commitment to our country, and we are committed to reducing (that number).”