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Number of homeless in the state on the rise

More than 1,000 on Maui served by outreach programs

November 15, 2009
By MARY VORSINO, The Honolulu Advertiser

The number of homeless people in shelters or served through outreach programs statewide increased in the last fiscal year - with about 520 more people going into shelters - in what advocates say is more evidence the economic downturn is hitting families hard.

The University of Hawaii Center on the Family's annual homeless service utilization report released Friday showed there were 7,501 people in homeless shelters statewide in the fiscal year that ended June 30 - up about 7 percent from the fiscal year before.

Meanwhile, 7,484 homeless were served through outreach programs in the state, an increase of 720 homeless people compared with fiscal year 2007, the latest year available.

Of that number 1,115 homeless were logged in Maui County.

Of those in shelters state-wide, about 39 percent were under 17 years old. And about half of those who moved into shelters came from the streets.

The increase last fiscal year represents the fifth straight year the number of people in homeless shelters statewide has gone up. There were about 36 percent more homeless people in shelters statewide in fiscal year 2009, compared with fiscal year 2005, a draft copy of the study said.

A good chunk of that increase is attributed to new homeless shelters opening in the islands, especially on Oahu's Waianae coast. But advocates say the most recent figures, coming in a year when few shelter beds were added, are more proof the ranks of the homeless are growing. And, homeless advocates say, things aren't expected to get better anytime soon.

"I think we're all bracing for more working poor, individuals and families" becoming homeless, said Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikiki Health Center, which offers outreach for the homeless islandwide. "It's going to be a really tough year."

The disappointing numbers come three years after the state kicked off a massive, multimillion-dollar effort to address a homeless crisis that forced thousands to set up camp in beaches and parks and garnered national headlines. Advocates say the state was just starting to make real progress in moving those people - many pushed into homelessness by rising rents - into housing when the economic downturn hit and spending on programs stalled.

At the same time, they say, need for services grew. Advocates say many of the new homeless have exhausted their savings and unemployment benefits after losing work hours or being laid off, and are going to homeless shelters as a last resort. Homeless service providers statewide have said they're seeing more people - and are being forced to turn some away.

Last month, there were 1,664 singles and 480 families on waiting lists for shelters statewide, according to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority's homeless programs branch.

"It's an outrage that people who have worked so hard find themselves sleeping in their vans with their kids," said Utu Langi, an advocate for the homeless and the program manager of Next Step, the state's homeless shelter in Kakaako. Langi said many of the new people coming into the shelter are families or singles who have lost jobs and can no longer afford their rents.

Thursday, Langi was on the second leg of an annual 10-day, circle-island walk to draw attention to the homeless crisis in the islands. He said the message this year is not only that homelessness is increasing, but that the face of homelessness is changing.

"The definition that we are so used to when we use the word homeless is not the same anymore," Langi said.

He added that many of those coming to shelters have never been homeless before.

Pamela Menter, chairwoman of Partners in Care, a consortium of homeless service providers, said the economic downturn is forcing families to make tough decisions. And she added that a contributing factor to the increase in homeless numbers is that despite the dip in housing prices, rents are remaining relatively stable, which means families are stuck.

"They can't afford their rents," she said.

The center report is meant to give service providers an idea of not only how many homeless they're serving, but also who they're serving.

It breaks the homeless population who have accessed shelter or outreach services down by age, residency, employment status and other demographics. In addition to showing an increase in shelter use, the report says:

* About 19 percent of those in shelters are 5 and under.

* Military veterans made up 12 percent of shelter users.

* Some 61 percent of sheltered adults had lived in Ha-waii for at least a decade.

* About 30 percent of sheltered adults were working full- or part-time.

The report is based on data from 44 shelters.

The fiscal year 2008 figures are based on data compiled from 41 shelters.

The three shelters not counted in 2008 are small transitional facilities. Onlookers and study authors say they wouldn't account for the increase of 520 people in shelters statewide.

The report also provides data on the long-term homeless, or those who have been homeless for a year or more or had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

It found that 23 percent of those at shelters and 31 percent of those who have accessed outreach services are experiencing long-term homelessness.

Of the long-term homeless who were in shelters, 22 percent were under 12 years old and 6 percent were between 13 and 17.

Meanwhile, about one-third of the long-term homeless in shelters had a disability.

Sylvia Yuen, Center on the Family director and a co-author of the study, said it is important to understand more about the long-term homeless since they cost the state more than those homeless for shorter bouts.

"If we did something about these chronically homeless resources that we provide for the homeless would be drastically reduced," she said.



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