From the road, the entrance to the homeless encampment where Patrick Garcia lives looks like a trailhead. His is one of about 50 tents tucked in the forest around Wahiawa, a central Oahu bedroom community where Garcia grew up. 

Amid the trees, the encampment is hard to spot. That makes it hard for volunteers conducting the “point-in-time” count, an annual survey of Hawaii’s homeless population that will next be held on Jan. 22, to find the people who live there. 

Even though he’s been homeless for 30 years, Garcia said he’s only been included in the count in the last two years.

He’s among what many believe is a growing number of homeless living hidden in Oahu’s rural areas, who until recently were undercounted in the survey. 

Central Oahu has a growing number of homeless encampments like this one tucked into the forest surrounding the town of Wahiawa. Natanya Friedheim/ Civil Beat

Thanks in part to a more accurate count in 2017, the number of homeless identified in the region that covers Wahiawa to the North Shore rose from 221 in 2016 to 385 the following year, a 74 percent increase.

The upper Windward district, which stretches from Kahuku to Kaneohe, saw an even greater spike, a 122 percent increase in one year.

“There were always people there. We were just not counting them,” said Scott Morishige, the state homeless coordinator.

By contrast, the overall state count of the homeless went down slightly in 2017.

Volunteer For The 2018 Point In Time Count

Partners In Care, a coalition of nonprofits that organizes the survey for Oahu, ramped up efforts to recruit volunteers and ushered in a new system to input the data in 2017, leading to what many believe is a more accurate count compared to prior years.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has required communities receiving federal funds to conduct the count for the past 14 years.

Those involved in the count agree it’s an imperfect measure. 

“I have to be frank, HUD doesn’t require much of us,” said Partners In Care Director Jen Stasch. “But what I heard from the community when I became the director is we need more information.” 

Partners In Care was made up entirely of volunteers until last year, when a federal grant allowed the organization to hire Stasch as its first staff member. The organization that organizes the survey on neighbor islands, Bridging The Gap, doesn’t have paid staff. 

The updated numbers have helped Phil Acosta of the nonprofit ALEA Bridge bring more services to the town.

ALEA Bridge, which serves the homeless in Wahiawa and neighboring towns, took the reins for their region’s count in 2017.  That’s when it became clear to Acosta that the number of homeless in the area were being undercounted.

“Just in the past year we’ve been able to secure over $2 million in facilities and operating funds specifically for that area,” Acosta said. “That really helps out a lot once we got those specific numbers we raised awareness in all the funding requests” to the state and city.

More Homeless, More Services

In the past five years, panhandlers have become an increasingly common sight in Wahiawa, Acosta said. So have the encampments around Lake Wilson, where families and individuals live in the bushes along the bank. 

“It’s just kind of gone unchecked for a long time,” he said.

The contacts ALEA Bridge has in the neighborhood helped the organization recruit about 100 volunteers for last year’s survey. The volunteers were people from nearby schools and churches who were already familiar with the homeless in the area.

After two years of doing homeless outreach in the area, ALEA Bridge’s staff know most of the homeless people by name.

That knowledge is key to getting a more accurate count.

Phil Acosta’s nonprofit organization, ALEA Bridge, coordinates the annual homeless count in the Wahiawa-North Shore area. 

Stasch, from Partners in Care, says the data gives lawmakers a general sense of where resources are needed.

“If we’re telling the legislators and the policymakers that we’re seeing an increase in those that are living unsheltered in the Windward region of our island, we really need to be able to back that up with numbers,” she said. “Until 2017 we weren’t able to do that.”

In the last five years,  the homeless population has increased in the central Oahu town of Wahiawa. Natanya Friedheim/ Civil Beat

Last year Acosta used the updated numbers in an application for state funds for ALEA Bridge.

It worked. The Legislature awarded his organization a $1 million grant to create an emergency shelter and resource center for the homeless in Wahiawa.

But most public money for homeless services isn’t as flexible as grants, which lawmakers can request for organizations in their district.

The city and state are locked into contracts with service providers.

“We can’t just change funding at any given time,” said Morishige, the state homeless coordinator. “We’re bound to the contract agreement that we give providers.” 

Most of the money that nonprofits receive is used on specific housing or assistance programs, including rapid re-housing or Housing First, rather than on helping certain geographic areas.

Services are concentrated in the urban core of Honolulu, where there are nearly twice as many homeless as in any other region of Oahu.  

‘The Invisible Coast’

The Upper Windward coast saw the largest spike in its homeless population from 67 people in 2016  to 149 people the following year.

Some lawmakers attribute the jump to the ever-expanding ban on sitting or lying down on streets in urban Honolulu, which they say pushes people into rural areas.

Honolulu City Councilman Ernie Martin, who represents the North Shore and parts of the Windward Coast, introduced a bill for an islandwide sit-lie ban but the measure quickly died.

“It’s one thing about Hauula and Koolauloa in general, we’re pretty far from services in Honolulu. It’s kind of like the invisible coast here.” — Dotty Kelly-Paddock, Hauula Community Association President

But Dotty Kelly-Paddock, the president of the Hauula Community Association, said most of the people camping in the beach parks are local families from the area.

When the count shot up, Rep. Sean Quinlan who represents the upper Windward side, tried to use the grant-in-aid process to address the growing problem.

“I’ve told people in the community if there are nonprofits that do homeless outreach, please do come and apply for a GIA,” he said.

But the coastal towns don’t have an equivalent of ALEA Bridge, a small organization dedicated to serving the area. 

It’s one thing about Hauula and Koolauloa in general, we’re pretty far from services in Honolulu,” said Kelly-Paddock. “It’s kind of like the invisible coast here.”

‘Just A General Indicator’

The point-in-time count is only one piece of the puzzle in addressing Hawaii’s homeless crisis, said Morishige, the state homelessness coordinator.

The survey is mandated by the federal government for communities that receive funding for homeless services.

People will generally acknowledge the point-in-time count has its limitations,” Morishige said. “It’s just a  general indicator of the population and the community.”

The federal government also requires Oahu to keep a list of people receiving services and rank them on a scale of how vulnerable they are — which is determined by factors including how long someone’s been homeless and if they have a disability.

Last year the state began requiring nonprofits that operate homeless shelters to track data on how effective they are at moving people into permanent housing.

Those databases only account for people who’ve made contact with a service provider.

The point-in-time count “helps us understand those that we’re not serving,” said Stasch of Partners in Care.

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