HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Steven “Happy” Stachurski, mentoring coordinator for HOPE Services, surveys a homeless couple for the Point in Time Count early Friday morning in Downtown Hilo.





HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Lehua Stanley of HOPE Services helps Sola, a 64-year-old homeless woman, pick oranges from the Salvation Army’s backyard Wednesday during the Point in Time survey in Honokaa.




HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, Kehau Stevens, Lehua Stanley and Ka‘au Davis-Tim Sing get supplies for a couple who slept in their car early Wednesday morning during the Point in Time Count at Laupahoehoe Beach Park.




January 30, 2017 – Hawaii Tribune Herald

At 5:30 a.m. Friday morning, Downtown Hilo lay dormant. Storefronts were mostly dark. Streets were eerily empty.

But Michael Nunes was just rising. He was slouched in a Kamehameha Avenue doorway, a thin blue blanket covering his feet, books and belongings strewn haphazardly at his side.

Nunes is homeless. Each night, he and other unsheltered individuals in East Hawaii scour downtown for sleep spots where they’ll be undisturbed, dry and safe. Many nights, they’re curled in doorways, tucked in building crevices or sprawled on park benches.

By the time the sun rises, most have vacated. Nunes planned to pack his belongings into a rumpled black duffle bag and leave the spot he’d slept the past three nights.

Nunes, 47, said he’s a father, a doting boyfriend and an aspiring student who dreams of forging a career as a substance abuse counselor. Growing up, he said he never dreamed he’d be homeless.

“I never thought I’d see myself on the streets,” he said, taking in a sweeping view of Hilo’s idyllic Bayfront from his storefront spot. “But anything can happen and it can change your life. You never know, I didn’t think I’d be like this.”

Hawaii Island’s unsheltered population is as varied as it is large. Some are temporarily on the streets, others chronically homeless. Some struggle with substance abuse or mental illness. Many are families, veterans or senior citizens. About 51 percent are “first-time homeless” — a higher rate than anywhere else in the state.

Each year, volunteers with HOPE Services — the isle’s largest provider of homeless services — hit the streets to conduct the Homeless Point in Time Count, a yearly national effort that aims to gauge the current number of sheltered and unsheltered people by asking participants where they slept on a single night in January.

The count is required of any jurisdiction which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last year, Hawaii received $11.5 million for homeless services.

This year’s weeklong count ended Friday.

Going ‘all over’

HOPE Services employees said East Hawaii’s 2017 Point in Time numbers might be slightly down because of heavy rain early in the week that left several typically popular spots empty.

Past data indicates, however, the island’s homeless population is growing. Last year, a combined 1,394 sheltered and unsheltered people were tallied islandwide, up from 1,241 in 2015, 869 in 2014 and 557 in 2013.

Of those unsheltered people counted in 2016, 26 percent were in Hilo — the largest percentage on the island. Konawaena accounted for 22 percent and Kealakehe, 20 percent. Pahoa accounted for 11 percent; Ka‘u 6 percent and Keaau 5 percent.

Honokaa and Kohala accounted for just 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. But outreach “goes all over,” said Vincent Muller of HOPE Services, who led a Hamakua Coast-based Point in Time team Wednesday morning.

“Up in these areas, we’ll find people in cars,” Muller said early Wednesday, shining a flashlight inside picnic shelters at Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park and cars parked along the scenic route, scanning for steamed windows or signs of movement.

“They might be pulled over off the main road trying to stay out of sight, or off the main road out of public eye. So it’s just getting all those numbers and counting as many (people) as we can.”

Among those Muller’s team counted was 64-year-old Sola (who declined to provide her last name to the Tribune-Herald), who said she resides in a tent in Kalapana. She said she’d caught a ride up north the day prior to check for mail in her Honokaa post office box.

Sola said she’s a former special education teacher. Years ago, she said she became injured and had to stop working. She said she’s since had trouble securing disability and housing assistance and now relies on charity services and help from friends.

“A lot of these folks have drug or alcohol problems and when you become part of a group like that, the police look at you differently,” Sola told the Tribune-Herald. “But I think it’s worth saying there are working families who are homeless. I’m a highly qualified person. I’ve run my own nonprofit. I’ve brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money but you can’t do that from a tent. So that’s kind of been my situation.”

Re-instilling hope

About 33 percent of Hawaii Island’s homeless are children.

For Steven “Happy” Stachurski, the HOPE Services mentor program coordinator leading a group Friday through Hilo, that’s one the toughest parts of the count.

As Stachurski’s team combed the quiet downtown streets, they spoke with a bearded elderly man shuffling along with a stack of plastic tubs filled with possessions. They also surveyed a man in his 20s with just a thin backpack slumped on a bench by the Mooheau Bus Terminal.

Stachurski even slid onto his stomach to speak with a couple, peacefully sleeping in a downtown storefront, inside a shelter intricately constructed with blankets and roller luggage. Stachurski also met with a mother: She had an infant in tow and both were snoozing in a car parked at the Bayfront soccer fields.

“It’s seeing the families that just tears my heart,” Stachurski said.

And then there are those who’ve seemingly given up hope. For example, Stachurski’s team spoke to an elderly woman Friday who’d slept alone on the pavement and refused even water. The woman couldn’t even get up, she exclaimed, because she didn’t have a belt.

Volunteer Jo Yamauchi wasted no time sliding off her own belt and handing it over.

“It seemed like she had just given up and didn’t want any of our help,” Yamauchi later explained. “And I don’t need a belt — these hips will hold up my pants very well.”

Volunteers say they hope those small gestures will ultimately propel those who need help most to accept it. Last year, HOPE Services says it provided outreach to nearly 2,400 homeless people and permanently housed more than 1,000.

“I think probably the best thing for me is, because I’m a people person, is (I believe) everybody’s got a fascinating story and I think people like to share their story,” Stachurski said. “But when you’re homeless, I don’t think you typically believe there are a lot of people who even want — let alone care — to hear your story.”

“So, it’s just showing them the fact that there are services and agencies that care about them and want to help them get into a family. It’s just re-instilling hope in them.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.