The number of homeless veterans in Hawaii declined by 51% between 2015 and 2022, a number far higher than the national average.

Scot Kunishige was in the Oahu Community Correctional Center facing charges of second-degree burglary, when he heard about a special program for military veterans that could help with both his legal woes and the substance abuse problems that had trapped him in a cycle of homelessness for nearly two decades. 

Kunishige, who is originally from Waimanalo and served in both the Army and National Guard, had been too embarrassed to seek help in the 18 years that he had been living in trucks and makeshift shelters around Oahu. This time was different. 

Kunishige made a call to Veterans Affairs, and when he was released from OCCC, two workers from the VA were waiting outside to take him to a treatment center and get him on a path to permanent housing. 

“If the VA didn’t rescue me, I don’t know where I would be today,” said Kunishige, who is now a peer support specialist in the same VA program that helped him a decade ago.

In the last two decades, the VA has significantly increased its investment in homeless services. In 2003, the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System had three workers in Hawaii assigned to tackling homelessness. Today, there are close to 100.

Tents and shopping cars located along Iwilei Road near the Institute of Human Services.
The number of homeless veterans has been cut in half in the last eight years, but the state is still far away from its goal of eliminating veteran homelessness. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The work they’ve accomplished — in partnership with county and state agencies and a slew of homeless service providers — is significant. 

Between 2015 and 2022, the number of homeless veterans in Hawaii declined by 51%, according to the state’s annual Point In Time homeless count.

That’s far short of the state’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness, but even amidst a national push to end veteran homelessness, Hawaii’s numbers stand out. Nationally, the number of homeless veterans dropped 31% during the same years. 

The success is driven by strong coordination between agencies and community groups, a focus on relationship building, meticulous tracking of individual homeless veterans, and the ability to tailor interventions based on individual needs.

Many of these tactics are already being adopted by homeless service providers working with the broader homeless community. But there’s a final ingredient for success that many groups may not have access to: significant additional funding for housing and wraparound services.

Identifying Every Veteran By Name

The Obama administration kicked off a national push to address veteran homelessness in 2014 with the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. When Honolulu signed on, the pledge was to end veteran homelessness on Oahu by 2015. 

That proved to be a highly unrealistic goal, but Hawaii has successfully posted year over year decreases for the last seven years. 

A big focus of the work has been on improving how homeless veterans are identified and tracked. Organizations use the county’s Homeless Management Information System as a starting point for maintaining a “by name” list of every veteran in the state who is homeless. 

That list is used in monthly meetings on Oahu where organizations working with homeless veterans come together to address not only broader issues facing that community, but solutions for individual veterans on the list. 

About 20% of homeless veterans are deemed high needs individuals, so additional attention is paid to them, said Anton Krucky, director of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services. 

Anton Krucky, Director of the Department of Community Services.
Anton Krucky says the effort to end homelessness for veterans is aided by how small the population is, which allows workers to focus more on individual needs than they might be able to when having meetings about the entire homeless population. In 2022, outreach workers identified 228 veterans experiencing homelessness on the night of the annual Point in Time count. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Krucky said the city — which now calls its effort the Oahu Initiative To End Veteran Homelessness — has also focused on mapping all the resources available, identifying gaps and trying to move swiftly to address them. 

At one meeting last year, service providers pointed out that many of the homeless veterans they worked with were struggling to get driver’s licenses. The city took federal pandemic relief funds and used that to pay overtime so that workers could set aside a weekend for outreach workers to bring in groups of homeless veterans to get licenses — something organizations were able to do because they had a list of homeless veterans who needed identification.

Pinpointing specific needs is a huge part of the equation, but the depth of resources available to then address those needs is significant.

The City and County of Honolulu has veteran-specific initiatives, as do homeless service providers like Partners in Care. Kaiser Permanente provides funding for veteran-focused efforts in Hawaii, including $500,000 for a program to expand the pool of available home rentals. U.S. Vets has a shelter for veterans with emergency and transitional beds.

And then there’s the VA, which now employs social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, two psychologists and multiple peer support specialists to help break the cycle of homelessness.

The VA has an emergency shelter program, an outreach team, a veteran’s justice program that works with incarcerated veterans who are going to be released into the community, and a street team that provides physical and mental health services to people living on the streets.

Housing First

As a peer support specialist, Kunishige’s focus is on building relationships. He brings veterans meals. Spends time learning about their lives. Shares the story of what it took for him to get sober and into housing.

One of the biggest things that made a difference for Kunishige — after he made that first decision to get help — is a housing program called HUD-VASH, which provides housing vouchers along with a slew of services to address things like mental health.

HUD-VASH is essentially the VA’s version of “housing first,” a national strategy that focuses on getting people into housing and then providing additional supportive services, as opposed to a more traditional model that often requires homeless people to achieve sobriety or comply with other requirements before getting into transitional or permanent housing.

The housing first model has proved incredibly successful in Hawaii, Heather Lusk, head of the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, said in an interview last month. But housing first voucher funding for the general homeless population has been very difficult to obtain, and there are only a few hundred vouchers available with little turnover in the program.

“It hasn’t been scaled up in a way that would make the difference we actually need,” Lusk said.

By contrast, the VA currently has 948 HUD-VASH vouchers in use with an additional 127 vouchers available.

The housing first model makes a huge difference for veterans, said Kunishige, pointing to it as the single biggest thing he thinks is reducing the number of homeless veterans in the islands.

“When you’re in a place where you can be safe,” Kunishige said, “You can learn how to start doing the (other) things that you need to do. It gives you a good foundation.”

Andrew Dahlberg, the VA’s Hawaii-based homeless services coordinator, thinks the key to reducing the number of homeless veterans in Hawaii year after year has been a focus on “meeting veterans where they are.”

It’s an observation that is echoed by Krucky and homeless service providers who are starting to emphasize the need to come up with more innovative solutions for different segments of the homeless population.

Krucky said the city has had similar success in reducing the number of families who are experiencing homelessness.

Krucky, whose background is business, thinks about homeless strategies in terms of market segmentation. That is, taking a look at who your customer base is and what it is that you can deliver to them that they will accept. 

“So we try to do the same thing with the veterans,” Krucky said. “I think the real piece there is rather than saying ‘I’ve got this and I’ll do it over here’ it is asking, ‘What would work best?’”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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