A year and a half ago, Honolulu joined a national push to end veteran homelessness. The goal was to get homeless veterans off the streets and into permanent housing by the end of 2015.
Honolulu has fallen short of that goal, but how much work there is to do depends on whose statistics you look at.
A recently released statewide homelessness survey found that there were 413 homeless veterans on Oahu, a 12 percent decrease from the previous year but 84 more homeless vets than the city calculated at about the same time.
Jun Yang, who leads the mayor’s Office of Housing, said the point-in-time count isn’t the best way to measure Honolulu’s progress on this issue to date.
The survey was taken during a single day in January. Volunteers scoured Honolulu neighborhoods interviewing homeless people. Surveyors noted the respondents’ race and gender, as well as whether they said they were veterans. The report, published in June, said Honolulu had 413 homeless veterans — sheltered and unsheltered.
The city’s method of counting homeless veterans is more rigorous, Yang said. Honolulu has worked with nonprofit groups to compile by-name lists of homeless veterans, training people in what questions to ask and how to verify the information with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
As of January — about the same time the point-in-time count was conducted — the city calculated there were 329 homeless veterans.
Yang said the discrepancy was likely attributable in large part to homeless people falsely claiming that they were veterans.
If you’re a landlord and have a room to rent, call the VA’s housing specialist Bob Shank at 347-2315 or the Mayor’s Office of Housing at 768-4675.
“People experiencing homelessness are no more likely than anyone else to make false claims about their military service,” Jones said. “I’m sure it happens occasionally, but that’s not a plausible explanation for why Honolulu’s veteran homeless numbers are so high.”
Jen Stasch is director of Partners in Care, a coalition of homeless service groups that conducted the point-in-time count in Honolulu. Stasch said she hasn’t closely examined the discrepancy between the mayor’s data and the point-in-time count, but thinks it’s possible that the difference could be attributed to false claims of respondents.
Stasch said it’s not unusual for homeless people who haven’t served in the military to identify as veterans in the hope of receiving additional services. Then again, some homeless people who are veterans may say they aren’t.
Yang said another reason the January point-in-time survey and the city’s own January numbers may differ is that the volunteers conducting the survey could have spotted homeless veterans that the city hadn’t counted yet.
Yang doubted that would be a large factor now, however, given how frequently the city has reached out to the homeless over the past few months.
By now, both the January point-in-time survey and the mayor’s January progress report are somewhat outdated. The latest available data is from the end of May, when the City and County of Honolulu reported housing 747 veterans with 221 still in need of housing.
That’s a huge increase over the same month last year, when only 42 veterans had been housed.
In May, Honolulu was meeting two of four benchmarks of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ending veteran homelessness, but the city still hadn’t been able to eliminate chronic homelessness for veterans or ensure that those who need housing could move into a unit within 90 days.
Yang said in order to meet the challenge, the city needs more landlords willing to rent units to homeless veterans.
“We’re trying to do this as fast as possible,” he said.
The city’s efforts to meet the goal of ending veteran homelessness have been hampered by a limited supply of rental units and changing federal criteria.
When Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell first pledged to join the national campaign, HUD had a list of five criteria to determine if a city had met the goal of ending veteran homelessness. They included ensuring that there are no unsheltered homeless veterans and creating a plan for providing permanent housing to all veterans who are in temporary shelter.
But in October last year, HUD released new benchmarks for measuring success:
Ryan Okahara, who leads HUD’s Honolulu office, said the city has consistently scored well on the last two benchmarks, but has struggled with the first two.
For example, as of May, it took an average of 235 days for a homeless veteran to enter permanent housing here, far more than the goal of 90.
The relative lack of supply of affordable units in Honolulu makes it hard to move veterans into housing quickly.
According to Amy Rohlfs, a public affairs officer at the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System in Honolulu, homeless veterans are “over-represented with chronic medical illness, mental health and substance abuse issues, social-legal justice issues, low rates of lifetime employment, historical dependence on subsidy programs and lack of support systems.”
All of that can make it harder to convince homeless veterans to move into housing and persuade landlords to accept them. As of May, there were still 68 chronically homeless veterans in Honolulu and seven of them hadn’t accepted offers to move into permanent housing.
Despite still having hundreds of homeless veterans on the street, “Honolulu is by no means alone,” said Okahara from HUD.
HUD’s website boasts that two states and 20 communities have eliminated veterans’ homelessness. But hundreds of communities that accepted the challenge, including major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, haven’t met the goal.
While Los Angeles has a larger veteran homeless population, the city has seen bigger gains than Honolulu, reporting a 30 percent drop in veteran homelessness in a recent survey — a decrease from over 4,300 to just over 3,000.
Jones from LA’s Inner City Law Center said the success has been fueled by federal funding for HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers, which are rental subsidies given to veterans. Los Angeles County received $60 million for HUD-VASH vouchers in fiscal year 2016.
In Hawaii, about $6.65 million has been allocated for HUD-VASH vouchers. According to Okahara, there are 677 vouchers statewide and 500 are on Oahu.
That doesn’t include another $6.5 million that the VA is spending for staff, grants and emergency housing programs.
Rohlfs from the VA said as of now, there are some 50 veterans who have vouchers in hand, but are unable to find housing.
Still, she and Okahara remain optimistic.
“Honolulu is one of a few major cities which is positioned to end homelessness amongst veterans by the end of the year,” Rohlfs wrote in an email.
“The only thing standing in our way is finding affordable housing,” she added.