Hawaii is seeing hopeful signs that the state’s homelessness crisis is finally abating.

According to the “point in time” count released Wednesday, the state’s homeless population stood at 7,220 during the week of Jan. 23, when the annual survey was conducted.

That’s a decrease of 701 individuals — a 9 percent drop — compared to the previous year, when 7,921 homeless people were counted.

The latest count — released by Partners in Care, a coalition of 30 homeless service providers on Oahu, and its counterpart in rural counties, Bridging the Gap — ended seven consecutive years of a relentless rise in homelessness, a period in which the overall homeless population increased by 37 percent.

During the week of Jan. 23, volunteers attempted to count every homeless person in Hawaii — part of a federally mandated annual headcount. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

The decrease came 19 months after Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency for homelessness and set out to refine the state’s approach to addressing homelessness.

“I commend the many partners who have gotten out of their silos, come to the table and rolled up their sleeves. Together, we are finding more efficient ways to move people off the streets and into homes,” Ige said in a statement. “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,” Ige said.

Much of the decrease in the numbers came from the neighbor islands, which saw their homeless population drop by nearly a third to 2,261.

The highest rate of decrease, at 32 percent, was recorded in Hawaii County: from 1,394 in 2016 to 953 in 2017.

Maui County’s homeless population saw the second-highest decrease, going down by 22 percent from 1,145 in 2016 to 896 in 2017.

In Kauai County, the homeless population saw a more modest decrease, from 442 in 2016 to 412 in 2017.

Oahu, however, saw the total homeless population increase slightly — a 0.4 percent jump from 4,940 in 2016 to 4,959 in 2017.

Among veterans on Oahu, the increase was even more pronounced — jumping 9 percent from 413 to 449, even though other cities on the mainland have already achieved the so-called “functional zero” in veteran homelessness.

And the number of Oahu’s unsheltered homeless people — those who are living outdoors as opposed to those staying at shelters — increased by nearly 7 percent to 2,324, keeping up multiple years of an upward trend.

The neighbor islands, by contrast, recorded a 35 percent decrease in homelessness among veterans and a 37.5 percent drop in unsheltered population.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell opted to focus on the brighter side of the count: Two regions on Oahu — East Honolulu and Waianae Coast — saw their unsheltered population decrease significantly — by 29 percent and 21.5 percent, respectively.

“Our hard work over the past several years has resulted in significant progress, including decreases in the homeless census in areas where we have focused on creating,” Caldwell said in a statement. “I thank all … volunteers for donating their valuable time to help generate a more accurate, and therefore larger count, that helps the city and state secure federal funding.”

Homeless count presser 1507 Piikoi St. 10 may 2017
Jennifer Stasch, director of Partners in Care, left, and Brandee Menino, chair of Bridging the Gap, discuss the results of the latest homeless count with the media. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, pointed out that much of the increase in Oahu’s unsheltered population came from regions that historically suffered from the lack of volunteers to conduct the federally-mandated survey.

The Upper Windward region, for instance, recorded a 122 percent increase — from 67 to 149 — in unsheltered population, while the Wahiawa to North Shore region saw its number jump by 74 percent — from 221 to 385.

Morishige said the sudden increase in the numbers reflects the accuracy in counting, given that Partners in Care coordinated the effort to recruit volunteers for the first time this year. The organization recruited 500 people to conduct an accurate count.

“For this year’s count, we really had an active community engagement, and we were able to get a really thorough canvassing of areas that have always been undercounted,” Morishige said. “So it’s not necessarily an increase in the sense that there’s more people there, but we’ve done a better job of counting areas that previously hadn’t been counted very well at all.”

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