Hawaii residents who live in their vehicles are almost invisible unless you know how to look for them. They might be in old vans parked at night with their windows partially cracked opened, or in former commercial vehicles with heavily tinted windows.

When I pass people living in their vehicles on my Diamond Head walks, sometimes I stop to talk, asking how they ended up there and manage to evade police.

State law prohibits people from sleeping in vehicles parked on public streets. In the last two years, the number of citations issued to people sleeping in their vehicles on public roads has gone from 259 to 398, according to the Honolulu Police Department.

The homeless on wheels are evidence that Hawaii’s unsheltered population does not fall into a one-size-fits-all category. That’s why the homeless crisis in the islands and almost everywhere else in the United States remains difficult to solve.

Francis Dornfried sits inside his van with his dogs at a small parking lot off of Diamond Head Road.
Francis Dornfried lives with seven dogs in this van, which was recently parked near Diamond Head Road. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In his State of the State address Jan. 22, Gov. David Ige boasted about reducing Hawaii’s homeless population for two years in a row by a total of 18 percent. But looking at the public parks and certain Honolulu sidewalks, it is difficult to perceive any reduction.

The governor pointed to a decrease in homeless sub-groups, including families, children and veterans.

Yet he did not mention other large constituencies still without permanent housing such as the homeless people living in vehicles and those who stay off the streets by occasionally “couch surfing” at friends’ residences.

Last week’s “point in time” survey, a counting of the homeless the state must do each year to qualify for federal housing money, also does not tally hidden groups like the mobile homeless, making the state’s count always seem far too low.

And never mind if the state is finding more shelter for more people.

“For every person we house, two more people fall into homelessness,” said Institute for Human Services spokesman Kimo Caravalho.

IHS is the state’s largest emergency services provider.

In the early morning hours, I have seen homeless people peeking out of a dusty former tour van on Paki Avenue, standing by a former shuttle bus with its windows covered with cardboard, and inside a red-and-white retired emergency rescue vehicle near the Waikiki Natatorium.

One of the mobile homeless chatted with me while washing his clothes in a water fountain on Diamond Head’s Fort Ruger Pathway. His vehicle was parked nearby.

Francis Dornfried, 51, sleeps in the back of his van with his seven dogs amid piles of blankets, pillows, clothes, plastic water bottles, cooking utensils and ample supplies of dog food.

Francis Dornfried walks his dogs near Diamond Head.. Dornfried lives with his dogs in a van.
Even when he finds a good place to park, Dornfried says he never stays there more than two nights. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dornfried says he has been homeless off and on since 2014. He says his seven dogs are part of the reason he remains on the streets. After his last landlord became sick and decided he no longer wanted to rent out his property, Dornfried was unable to find a place he could afford that would take in all his dogs.

“The dogs are my responsibility and I take it very seriously,” he says, adding he ended up with seven after one of the three dogs he adopted to help out a former employer turned out to be pregnant and had four puppies.

He says his main difficulty now is finding a place to park where he will not annoy nearby residents, all the while trying to keep his dogs from barking.

He looks for neighborhoods that are dark and with few houses. When he finds such a place, he never stays longer than two nights in a row.

An ideal place to pull up for the night, he says, is next to a public park or an apartment building where nobody pays attention to cars coming and going.

He showers each day at beach parks or takes a sponge bath using water from a drinking fountain.  He limits himself to one meal a day from the McDonald’s value menu, usually a milk shake or a couple of hamburgers, some of which he gives to the dogs.

Another problem is keeping the van legal. He says when his registration expires this year he will be unable to renew it because he has unpaid traffic citations with total fines of almost $1,000.

“I want to be a law-abiding citizen,” he says. “I just can’t afford to be.”

Dornfried has worked in the past as a carpenter and a house cleaner, but says it is impossible for him to work now because he has nobody to watch over the dogs while he is on a job and he can’t afford to board them in a kennel during work hours.

When I mention Hale Mauliola, the shelter at Sand Island that permits homeless people to become residents with their vehicles and their pets, he says he fears his dogs would fight with the other animals.

Hale Mauliola is a shelter where people live in converted shipping containers while they get help in finding long-term housing. When it opened in 2015, a dozen homeless people who had been living in their vehicles quickly agreed to move in.

Of all the different types of homeless people in Hawaii, these can be the most difficult to reach because some of them think they already have homes: their vehicles.

“I don’t worry at all,” Dornfried says. “The only thing I worry about is the dogs’ happiness. I can imagine living like this forever.”

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