Volunteers counted 4,448 homeless people on Oahu’s streets and in shelters during a survey earlier this year, a number that holds steady with the totals of the last two years.

Those counted include 3,716 adults and 732 children. Over half the population, or 2,346 individuals, were unsheltered, either on the street or somewhere else unfit for human habitation. Totals for veterans and families appeared to continue a downward trend, but the total number of homeless individuals on the island was slightly higher than last year.

Oahu’s 2020 homeless count appears in line with the last two years, but city and state homeless officials cautioned against forming conclusions because of a change in methodology.

Partners In Care

However, the methodology for the count changed significantly this year, which makes it tough to draw conclusions when compared to previous years’ data. This year, volunteers used a mobile app to input survey data and completed the count over a few hours instead of several days. They were also allowed to count people by observation, a practice that meant people who were sleeping in cars or were otherwise inaccessible were still counted. In previous years, they were not.

“The numbers haven’t changed significantly, but we have sheltered more people,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, which organizes the PIT Count. “There were less unsheltered and more sheltered people. That is a step, somewhat, in the right direction.” 

The PIT Count is an annual effort to capture a rough snapshot in time of homelessness across the nation. While imprecise, the federal Housing and Urban Development office uses the data to allocate funding to cities and states. This year’s count was conducted over several hours on the morning of Jan. 23 – weeks before the state shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Next year’s count could be much higher.

“Researchers project significant financial challenges and increases in homelessness due to loss of jobs, wages, and stability and the inability to afford rent,” the PIT report states.

Many Hawaii households were already in a precarious financial position before the coronavirus necessitated the shutdown of tourism, the lifeblood of the state’s economy. Now, they’re teetering on the brink.

The state’s latest Housing Planning Study, released pre-COVID-19, estimated that a quarter of all Hawaii households were at risk of homelessness, meaning they would be forced out of their homes after two months or less of missed paychecks.

If only 10% of those households lost their primary source of income, the study said approximately 14,000 households would need assistance to keep them from becoming homeless.

About a third of Hawaii’s regular labor force is out of work. Experts are bracing for a wave of additional homelessness, but they say it’s too soon to tell what the full effect will be. Evictions are on pause until the end of this month pursuant to an order from Gov. David Ige.

If only 10% of Hawaii’s at-risk households lost their primary source of income, an estimated 14,000 households would need assistance to keep them from becoming homeless, a 2019 state study found.

“You’re going to see more people, definitely, in unstable housing situations,” said Scott Morishige, Ige’s coordinator on homelessness. “You’re going to see more people finding themselves at imminent risk of eviction or foreclosure.”

Affordable Housing Efforts ‘Failing’

Even in the period of relative economic prosperity before COVID-19, new people were falling into homelessness all the time in Hawaii. Of the 6,610 households served in homeless programs between April 2018 to 2019, 33% of them, or 2,177, were new to the homeless service system, according to the study.

Pre-COVID, people of all income levels were in need of thousands of more housing units in the next five years – particularly rental units for people making $30,000 per year and below, the study said.

Hawaii needs over 50,000 new housing units in the next five years, according to the 2019 Housing Planning Study. The greatest need is for low-income rentals.

Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation

But from 2010 to 2018, on average, only 2,902 units were added statewide per year across income levels, according to the study.

The number of “hidden homeless” people – adults who have doubled up with friends or family for financial reasons – was rising before COVID-19 too. Across the state, the percentage of households that contained hidden homeless people increased from 17% in 2016 to 20% of households in 2019, according to the study.

We are failing with affordable housing,” Thielen said. “If we do not have housing, we will never solve homelessness.” 

The local and state government has struggled to manage the inflow of people becoming homeless but say they’ve made progress. In 2019, Hawaii homeless service providers prevented 1,198 households from becoming homeless, according to the housing planning study. And during 2019, 5,307 people were placed in permanent housing on Oahu, according to Honolulu’s housing dashboard.

“That’s a lot of people, and yet our count remains flat,” said Marc Alexander, the director of Honolulu’s housing office. “Obviously we have an inflow issue.”

More Housing And Shelter Space Needed

Oahu’s homeless population skews male, making up 59% of the counted population, the report states.

Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and multiracial people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population. According to the report, 51% of the survey respondents said they were at least partly Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Black and Hispanic people are also slightly overrepresented, the report found. While African Americans are 2% of the island population, they make up 5% of the homeless population. Hispanics make up 10% of Oahu’s population but 12% of the homeless count.

Among those counted, the report found:

  • 28% of adults indicated they had a physical or developmental disability
  • 27% are “repeaters,” meaning they were counted as homeless in 2017, 2018 or 2019
  • 25% of adults had a mental health problem
  • 18% of adults indicated they had a substance abuse problem
  • 13% of adults were survivors of domestic violence
  • 12% of adults were 60 years or older
  • 10% were veterans
  • 4% were unaccompanied minors
Man sleeps under awning fronting Island Sweetdreams located on Kuhio Avenue, Waikiki with very little foot traffic during COVID-19 pandemic. June 1, 2020

More than half of Oahu’s homeless population is unsheltered.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The primary cause of homelessness cited by those surveyed was the inability to pay rent, job loss and alcohol/drug use. City officials have repeatedly pointed to the lack of mental health and addiction resources for homeless people who need them.

Just to address housing demand from the homeless population alone, the Housing Planning Study found that Hawaii needs:

  • 1,653 additional transitional shelter beds, mainly for substance abuse (558) and mental health treatment (251), as well as mixed conditions;
  • 1,295 additional permanent supportive housing units for individuals and families with various special needs;
  • and 3,615 additional subsidized or unsubsidized affordable housing units for individuals and families throughout the state.

The City and County of Honolulu does not have a health department and relies on the Hawaii Department of Health to provide services that address mental illness and addiction, Alexander said.

“The state legislature needs to fund those beds,” he said. “We depend on the state to do this.”

Permitting For Housing Too Slow

But there are steps the city can take to facilitate the development of affordable housing, Thielen said.

The city permitting process creates costly delays, she said.

A city audit this year found that low pay, insufficient training and high turnover contribute to a permitting department that can’t keep up. An average of 2,513 outstanding permit applications roll over every year, the auditor found.

“If we can’t get affordable housing through the permitting process in a reasonable amount of time, we’re not going to have developers who can make a project pencil out,” she said. 

Island residents play a role too. Those who are protesting the development of an affordable housing complex in Kailua over concerns about traffic, parking and the character of the neighborhood need to think about the bigger picture, Thielen said.

“The crisis is going to be exponentially larger if we stop these projects from coming to fruition,” she said. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t question the projects, but halting them is going to come back to haunt us in future years.”

Morishige said he shares in the frustration of residents who want to see greater reductions in homelessness but noted the state made a significant improvement in 2016 by reversing an upward trajectory. This was done through expanding the Housing First and rapid rehousing programs and increasing accountability in homeless service contracts, he said.

The problem grew over many years, he said, and may take years to solve.

“Can we do more? Yes, we can do more,” he said. “Is there a need for more housing resources? Yes. Is there a need for mental health and substance abuse resources? Yes.”

However, he said it’s only going to get harder to fund the state’s homeless service needs. Lawmakers are facing a $2.3 billion budget shortfall.

“We’re in very uncertain times,” Morishige said. “With the impact to our economy and the impact on the state budget, we need to realize that the backbone of our homeless system is funded through the general fund of the state of Hawaii.”

Federal funds will help to some extent, Alexander said. The city is offering assistance through a $25 million hardship relief fund through which families can be reimbursed up to $1,000 per month for housing and utility payments and up to $500 per month for child care. Assistance will last up to six months. And HUD just granted Honolulu $22.3 million to address housing and homelessness in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city hasn’t yet announced how those funds will be spent.

All of these things are designed to get real money into the hands of people that need it,” Alexander said. 

Support local journalism

Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author