Numbers not reflective of true homeless population

Maui’s three homeless shelters served 1,557 people last fiscal year, but experts estimate there are likely twice that number still staying in cars, parks and beaches across the county.

“A lot of people don’t feel like they can come to a shelter for various reasons. There are a lot more people out there than are being counted,” said Maude Cumming, executive director of the Family Life Center in Kahului. The center houses men, women and children.

A study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the state Department of Human Services counted 2,272 individuals in Maui County who received either shelter or outreach services during the 2013 fiscal year, down slightly from 2,358 people the year before.

The “Homeless Service Utilization Report: Hawaii 2013” reported that 13,639 people received homeless service this year in the state, down 2.4 percent from last year.

The study suggests that the state is making gains in its effort to curb homelessness, but local activists say “it’s hard to tell.”

“There is great awareness that there are homeless people, but not a great understanding of how people got there,” Cumming said. “The population is not growing, but it’s not decreasing either. We really work hard to get people housed, but when we do there are more people that become homeless. If you just look at the numbers, you wonder if we’re doing anything.”

The Family Life Center operates Ho’olanani Shelter, an emergency service shelter that allows those in need to stay for up to six weeks and provides job search assistance, mental and physical health screening and substance abuse counseling. The first-come, first-serve shelter can accommodate up to 50 people per night, and usually serves between 30 and 45 people every day, administrators said.

County officials said progress is being made in helping the existing homeless population, but more people migrate to Maui and find themselves without a place to stay.

“From last year to today, the count has gone down a little in Maui, but there has been a lot of homeless coming in from other communities . . . sometimes from out of state,” Janice Shishido, deputy director of the Housing and Human Concerns Department, said on last week’s edition of the Mayor’s television show, “Your County with Mayor Arakawa.”

About 44 percent, or 482 people, who stayed at a homeless shelter in Maui County in the last fiscal year reported living in Hawaii for 20 years or more, according to the UH study. Only 12 percent reported living in Hawaii for less than a year. The majority of homeless people who stayed in a shelter last year were between 25 and 59 years old.

Crimes associated with the homeless population has climbed over the past few years, according to Maui Police Department spokesman Lt. William Juan.

In the last three years, calls received by the Police Department reporting homeless-related crimes has risen considerably, Juan said. In 2010, about 5,600 calls were received; in 2011, 7,069 calls; in 2012, 8,202 calls. As of mid October of this year, the Police Department had received 7,059 calls for service relating to offenses by homeless people.

“I cannot say what the exact reason for that (increase) is, but the highest call for service was drug offenses,” Juan said on the mayor’s show, televised on Akaku: Maui Community Television. “We do have a homeless population that has some sort of addiction,” he said.

Disorderly conduct was the second-highest category of calls, he added.

Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers operates homeless shelters in Wailuku and Lahaina. Last fiscal year, 1,132 people were housed at the shelters, an administrator said.

Ka Hale A Ke Ola offers both an emergency shelter program, which provides housing for up to six weeks while assisting with a job search. If the “client” secures a job, he or she may qualify for a unit in which they can stay as long as two years while they look for permanent housing.

“Some will take the help, and others don’t because they settle and get comfortable where they are, whether it’s at the beach or in the bush, that’s their comfort zone,” Ka Hale A Ke Ola Chief Operating Officer Shelley Blackburn said. “We’re here to offer them help, but they know it comes with rules and policies and procedures. We’re not just a shelter. We’re a program that offers services to help these people get back on their feet and rebuild that foundation in their lives.”

It’s nearly impossible to get an even nearly accurate count of how many homeless people are living in Maui, but Blackburn said she agrees that it is likely much more than the number of people who come through Ka Hale A Ke Ola’s doors.

Many people turn down assistance, whether due to problems with authority, substance abuse or mental health issues, but for Blackburn, seeing even one person get back on his feet makes her efforts worthwhile.

“It’s hard to say if we’ve been helping. We’d like to say that we are but for me, if we could help a family, then we’ve done all that we can,” Blackburn said. “For me, you never know if that can be your friend or family. It can be a lady next to you in your office, and you just don’t know. They’re no different than you or I. It’s just times are hard, and they need a hand up. Sometimes putting that label on them as ‘homeless’ doesn’t help, giving them hope and letting them know we’re here to help does.”

Both Cumming and Blackburn said that the lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest deterrents for someone who is trying to get back on his feet.

“If we had housing that was very cheap, you wouldn’t have homelessness,” Cumming said. “There’s a lot of things that go back to social problems in the community, females who have been sexually abused, problems from early childhood that are never addressed, behavioral problems. There’s a lot, but affordable housing is something we can do.”

The county does assist in subsidizing some costs to provide affordable housing, but “the ones that are actually affordable” fill up almost immediately, Cumming said.

“The county wants to kick homeless people out, but there’s no place for us to go,” said a man camped out at Waihee Beach Park who identified himself only as “Jason.” “The $1,300, $1,400 homes, that’s affordable for who? Homes are not affordable for those struggling.

“If they really want to help houseless people, give them someplace to go, then we can afford and maintain,” he said. He added that shelters “not ’nuff” because stringent rules and regulations separated men and women into different dorms and took away from family time.

The majority of campers at Waihee Beach Park are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, some whose families have lived on Maui for generations. The study found that 24 percent of homeless people who received services in Maui were Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian, the second-most represented ethnicity behind Caucasians (40 percent).

“The county is only worried about the image to the tourist, but this is kanaka’s land, not their land. We was here first, and we gonna be here when they gone,” Jason said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at