August 31, 2016 – Hawaii Tribune Herald
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald HOPE Services homeless outreach specialist Leilani Ulu, left, and East Hawaii outreach specialist Wanda Salas walk through a homeless encampment parallel to Highway 11. They were alerting homeless people about incoming Hurricane Madeline and handing out emergency preparedness supplies Tuesday in Hilo.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald HOPE Services homeless outreach specialist Leilani Ulu, left, informs homeless people of incoming Hurricane Madeline while handing out emergency preparedness supplies Tuesday at Wailoa River State Recreation Area in Hilo.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald HOPE Services homeless outreach specialist Leilani Ulu gathers emergency preparedness supplies to hand out in a homeless encampment parallel to Highway 11 on Tuesday in Hilo.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald HOPE Services arrives at Wailoa River State Recreation Area to alert homeless people of incoming Hurricane Madeline and hand out emergency preparedness supplies Tuesday in Hilo.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A homeless encampment parallel to Highway 11 is deserted Tuesday in Hilo.
Ride it out.
That was the survival plan for two residents of a Hilo homeless encampment Tuesday as Hurricane Madeline — followed by Hurricane Lester — marched toward Hawaii Island.
“The trees keep us pretty covered,” one of the residents, a 30-something woman, explained, gesturing around their tucked-away tarp encampment. “It’s not as bad as you think; the worst that happens is puddles on our tarps, but that’s easy to fix.”
When tropical storms, hurricanes and other natural disasters strike, some of the island’s homeless seek refuge with friends and family. Others head to homeless or emergency shelters. But many stay put.
And that strategy worries relief organizations, including HOPE Services.
When natural disasters loom, HOPE Services, the largest provider of homeless services on the island, works with Hawaii County Civil Defense to meet with as many of the county’s homeless residents as possible to inform them about the potential danger, safety measures and shelter options.
Civil Defense spokeswoman Kanani Aton said her agency distributes emergency shelter information to others, including HOPE Services, and relies on them to convey the information to the homeless.
Statistics from this year’s Homeless Point in Time Count show Hawaii Island’s homeless population increased by 153 people, from 1,241 to 1,394 during the past year. That’s more than 50 percent of the total increase statewide.
HOPE Services tries to meet with as many of those individuals as possible, but “it’s hit or miss,” CEO Brandee Menino said, because some might leave their encampment during the day or move around.
That’s what happened Tuesday, as HOPE Services outreach specialists Leilani Ulu and Wanda Salas spent part of the afternoon meandering through encampments near Highway 11 in Hilo, passing out storm update flyers, snacks, canned food, emergency kits and blankets to whoever was home. Those also are items residents need to bring should they choose to use the emergency shelters Hawaii County opened late Tuesday.
In 2014, HOPE Services’ own shelter facilities swelled past capacity in the wake of Tropical Storm Iselle, which destroyed many substandard homeless structures — particularly in Puna.
“(The homeless) are vulnerable,” Ulu said. “A lot of them decided to stay out in the weather. So with that, there’s no protection out there. Although we offer transportation … some of them, maybe they haven’t experienced a (severe) natural disaster and they don’t think one is coming. This one looks like it’s coming really close, though. It might not be a cry-wolf situation.”
Email Kirsten Johnson at email@example.com.