Hawaii continues to have one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, but the Aloha State no longer holds the dubious distinction of being the absolute worst.

That title is now held by New York. Hawaii has fallen to No. 2, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

The report is based on each state’s point-in-time count, an annual effort to capture a snapshot of all homeless individuals in the country. In Hawaii, 44.9 in every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness in 2019, according to the report. The national average is 17 people per 10,000. New York’s rate is 46.4.

There were 6,412 homeless people counted in Hawaii in 2019, a decrease of 19% from 2016.

We are seeing real improvements in the number of people housed,” said Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness. “Although we are making progress, there is so much work to be done, especially for the unsheltered population. What we’re seeing on Oahu, we need to do more about that.”

Ala Wai park homeless prepare to move out of park.
Over half of Hawaii’s homeless population is unsheltered. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Most of Hawaii’s homeless population lives on Oahu: more than 4,400 people, according to the island’s 2019 point-in-time count. More than half of those people are unsheltered, living on sidewalks, in parks and in other public places not meant for human habitation.

Despite unsheltered numbers declining on neighbor islands, there has been a steady upward trend on Oahu over the last decade, according to Morishige.

“This data indicates that the recent increases in housing subsidies alone are not enough to address the needs of Oahu’s unsheltered population,” Morishige said, adding there is a particular need for mental health and substance abuse services.

At a meeting of state representatives at the Hawaii Capitol on Tuesday, housing officials briefed legislators about the state of homelessness on the islands and the efforts being made to solve the problem.

Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said Oahu has made great strides in reducing family and veteran homelessness: the number of homeless families decreased by 42% from 2015 to 2019 and veteran homelessness declined 18% in that time. Now in the final year of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, Alexander said the city is focused on the unsheltered population.

“They’re among the most vulnerable in our community,” he said. “To leave them on the streets is simply unconscionable. We cannot allow that to happen.” 

Hawaii Rep. Joy San Buenaventura led a summit on homelessness on Tuesday. City and state officials told lawmakers they’re making progress but more mental health and substance abuse services are needed. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2020

Alexander touted the city’s Housing First program through which 315 voucher holders were housed and 84% of clients did not return to homelessness within a year. The program should be expanded to serve even more people, Alexander said.

The city is using a variety of other programs to combat homelessness including a new pilot called Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons, or HONU.

Introduced in Waipahu, homeless folks who are camping illegally are given the option of getting a ticket or accepting transport to HONU. Once at HONU, clients can store belongings and pets, do laundry, sleep and get connected to housing services. After a 60 to 90 day period, the mobile center relocates to another area of the island.

Other programs are designed for various subpopulations including domestic violence survivors and kupuna, Alexander said.

“It’s targeted, specific and it’s measured,” Alexander said.

While presenting to legislators, Alexander said cities need the state’s help with their No. 1 issue: behavioral health.

“We need to better address mental health services (and) substance use disorder,” he said. “We need – desperately – stabilization beds. Remember, the counties cannot do health care. We are not allowed by our charter. This is something only the state can do.” 

The expansion of the state hospital isn’t sufficient, Alexander said.

“We have to commit a crime in order to get mental health services,” he said. “Scandalous. Please, let’s address that.”

At the meeting, Republican Rep. Gene Ward said officials may be working toward solutions, but everyday citizens don’t see progress. Perception is reality, he said.

“Who can tell us what we can tell our constituents, 1.4 million who are waiting for us to have a solution?” he asked. “Is there a game plan that says: ‘Yes, people of Hawaii, we have a handle on this and we know what we’re doing?'”

Alexander responded by saying there is a master plan, part of which is a rental housing revolving fund the state has failed to fund. Also, 1,800 units of Housing First are needed just for Oahu, Alexander said.

“We need to scale the programs that work,” he said.

The federal report provided several insights on homelessness in Hawaii:

  • California and Hawaii had the highest rates of homelessness among all individuals (in other words, not families with children) with 68 and 63 of every 10,000 individuals experiencing homelessness. These rates are more than 2.5 times the national rate of 24 per 10,000 individuals.
  • Of Hawaii’s homeless individuals, 72% were unsheltered.
  • Of 1,992 homeless families, 454 were unsheltered, or nearly 23%.
  • Of 222 homeless youth, 149 were unsheltered, or 67%.
  • Hawaii has one of the highest rates of veteran homelessness in the nation with 39 per 10,000 people, 58% of whom are unsheltered.
  • 36% of Hawaii’s homeless population is chronically homeless, meaning individuals with disabilities who have been homeless for a year or more, or have experienced 12 or more months of homelessness over the last three years. More than 85% of chronically homeless people in Hawaii are unsheltered.
  • Hawaii’s chronically homeless population has more than doubled since 2007.
  • Hawaii’s homeless crisis can’t be explained by its warm weather alone. All but one of the five states with the lowest rates of homelessness are located in warm climates: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Dakota.

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