Ige: Homeless tide has turned; but there is still more work to do

Maui County homeless census drops 22 percent in a year

A tent where a homeless family lives is less than 50 feet from tourists at Baldwin Beach Park. Some regular beachgoers have complained about the growing number of homeless people. This photo was taken May 2. While this encampment will be cleared later this month, a new survey shows that Maui’s homeless population has decreased 22 percent. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Gov. David Ige said that the “tide has turned” on the state’s homelessness crisis, citing a study of Hawaii’s homeless population that showed double-digit percentage decreases in Maui County and on the Big Island.

Overall, the annual “Point in Time” census showed a nearly 9 percent drop — from 7,921 statewide in 2016 to 7,220 on Jan. 22. Census-takers asked homeless people where they slept on that date, giving the survey its “point in time.”

Maui County’s homeless population dropped 22 percent compared with a year earlier, falling from 1,145 individuals in 2016 to 896 this year, according to the census report.

The Big Island’s homeless population declined 32 percent, Kauai’s was down 7 percent and Oahu’s rose slightly, up 0.4 percent (with 19 more individuals).

According to the census, Oahu had 4,959 homeless people (which includes those in shelters and unsheltered), 68.7 percent of the state’s homeless population; Hawaii island had 953, 13.2 percent; Maui had 896, 12.4 percent; and Kauai had 412, 5.7 percent.

“Together, we are finding more efficient ways to move people off the streets and into homes,” Ige said as the census report was released Wednesday. “This report is proof that our collective efforts are working.

“While today’s news indicates that the tide has turned, there is more to do. My administration remains focused on increasing affordable housing and reducing homelessness in the State of Hawaii,” the governor said.

The report credited homelessness prevention programs; a change in Section 8 housing rules to allow for room rentals; and state, county and federal housing subsidies for making a difference in the numbers of people living without permanent housing.

Ige acknowledged that the lack of housing in Maui County is “a big challenge, but we are committed to developing affordable housing there.”

Ige said that the state is working with county and service providers to focus on housing first, placing people in permanent, supportive housing and providing other mechanisms to assure that people have shelter and a safe place to sleep at night.

Monique Yamashita, the executive director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers, questioned the accuracy of the homeless numbers for Maui, saying that her agency had a waiting list for shelter in all of 2016.

“We had a wait list that was very long last year,” she said, while adding that Ka Hale A Ke Ola was improving in getting people out of the shelter and transitional housing and into permanent homes.

That came after the agency adopted the “housing first” philosophy and stopped requiring people to take drug tests or be clean and sober as of Feb. 1.

“We lowered our barriers,” she said. “We’re a low-barrier shelter now.”

Ka Hale A Ke Ola can house 450 people in emergency shelter and transitional housing, she said.

Now, her agency aims to have people in and out of the shelter and into housing within 90 days, she said.

But, as for the “Point in Time” count, Yamashita said: “Many in the field believe the counts are far underestimated as the actual number of people experiencing homelessness is difficult to count. It’s a ‘hit or miss’ count.”

For example, during the week of the count for unsheltered individuals, “there may be individuals sleeping in their cars or doubling up with other families (considered at-risk for homelessness). If you can see them, you can count them. If it was raining on the day specified . . . the homeless may be sheltered away from their normal place to dwell.”

She said that the census is a “really great tool” to set a minimum number of homeless people, “but certainly not exhaustive or truly accurate. It does help us to know a ballpark figure of the homeless situation.”

Maude Cumming, the executive director of the Family Life Center, said that her agency has coordinated the “Point in Time” count of homeless people on Maui for the last five years.

Surveyors go out for five days following the point-in-time date, and they ask homeless people where they slept on Jan. 22, she said. Surveyors go out at different times of day across the island to ensure full coverage. Maui’s survey was conducted by homeless service staff and volunteers who participate in the Maui Homeless Alliance.

The surveyors are trained to ensure that the survey is administered and undertaken with questions in the same way, she said.

“All surveys are turned in, unduplicated and information entered into our statewide database,” she said.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, said that there were 700 volunteer census takers statewide.

“It really takes a lot of coordination and planning,” he said.

And, with more volunteer involvement, the surveyors were able to reach areas not covered in the past, Morishige said.

The survey “does show a general population trend over time,” he said, adding that fewer people were being identified as homeless this year than last.

But he said that the homeless population can be difficult to find and pin down.

Morishige said he visited Maui about a year ago and was taken to a homeless encampment “1 to 2 miles into the bush” in Central Maui. And, he said, there wasn’t just one camp. There were camps in Kahului, Wailuku and Lahaina “far in the bush.”

He said he was told, “Take your hiking boots.”

Homeless people are in places “not highly visible to the public,” he said.

The camps are isolated, and “you’d not see it unless you went looking for it.”

Morishige said that he encountered “all local people from Maui” in the camps he visited.

There were no figures available on homeless numbers for Molokai and Lanai.

Of Maui’s 22 percent drop in homeless numbers, Cumming said: “Maui service providers have been working hard to move people into permanent housing.”

She pointed out that the actual number of people moved into permanent housing in the year between surveys was 671, with more than half of those from the Family Life Center.

Yamashita said that the “biggest challenge” is finding affordable housing for homeless people on Maui, especially when it costs $800 to $1,000 a month just to rent a room. Overcoming the challenge means being creative, like having two single men share a single room in a house, she said.

A landlord summit will be held July 10 at the Maui Beach Hotel in Kahului to have a conversation with and to form relationships with island homeowners, she said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

UNSHELTERED POPULATIONS

The Statewide Point-In-Time Count, which involved asking people where they slept on Jan. 22, logged 501 homeless people on Maui. Shown below are the region, the number of individuals and the percentage of the total homeless unsheltered population on the island.

• Central Maui: 215, 43 percent.

• Kihei: 129, 26 percent.

• Lahaina: 104, 21 percent.

• Upcountry: 48, 10 percent.

• Lower Waiehu: 4, 1 percent.

• Hana: 1, 0.02 percent.

Overall, 896 people reported being sheltered or unsheltered homeless. That’s 12.4 percent of the statewide total of 7,220. Of the 501 unsheltered individuals on Maui, 480, or 95.8 percent, were single, and 21, or 4.2 percent, were members of families. Of the 395 individuals in Maui shelters, 275, or 69.6 percent, are members of families, and 120, or 30.4 percent, were individuals.

— Source: C. Peraro Consulting, 2017 Statewide Point-In-Time Count