A new report found overall homeless numbers remained relatively stable in the last year, but there have been notable changes in who is homeless and why. 

Roughly 1 in 5 people experiencing homelessness on Oahu this January were over the age of 60 — a staggering increase from previous years that could present challenges for a homeless care system not designed to meet the needs of seniors.

The data comes from a report released Thursday by Partners in Care, which oversees the island’s annual “Point in Time” count, where hundreds of volunteers fan out across the islands to identify the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night. 

The reason for the change is unclear. It could be a statistical anomaly, or it could be a harbinger of things to come in a state with one of the fastest aging populations in the country.

“Hawaii has a pretty large aging population. We want to make sure we have things in place for dealing with that so that we prevent (more seniors) from falling into homelessness,” said Anna Pruitt, a faculty affiliate in the department of psychology at the University of Hawaii Manoa who has been conducting research on homelessness in Hawaii for more than a decade. “Because I think we’re starting to see the beginning of that kind of increase.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness on Oahu remained relatively stable between January of 2022 and 2023, although there were big increases in the number homeless seniors and unsheltered people on the Waianae Coast.(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

This year, volunteers counted 4,028 people experiencing homelessness on the night of Jan. 22 – a figure very close to the 3,951 people identified the previous year. 

That Oahu’s homeless population rose by only 77 people during a time of economic instability is fairly positive, and a reflection of the hard work done by homeless service providers during the pandemic.

But the report also identified a few concerning trends: an increase in the number of people becoming homeless because of domestic violence, a surge in the number of homeless people on the Waianae Coast, and that growth in the number of people over the age of 60 without housing – a jump from 8% to 22% of the overall homeless population in just a year.

Homeless seniors – many of whom may have mental or physical disabilities – can be difficult to house, said Heather Lusk, head of the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and chair of Partners in Care.

There are only a few homeless service sites that have spaces for people in wheelchairs. There are no homeless facilities with services specifically for people with memory issues or dementia, Lusk said.

“There’s not a single skilled nursing facility that’s focused on the houseless or a single hospice facility. There’s no care homes,” Lusk said. “Sometimes when we go to a care home and the moment we say they’re houseless, it’s ‘Oh no, sorry we don’t have a bed.’ So there’s just a lot of those barriers.”

Gov. Josh Green places a lei on the first tiny house to be set up this week in the Department of Health’s parking lot as part of an effort to create more temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness on Oahu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

James Koshiba, the new state coordinator on homelessness, said in an email that he had expected larger increases in homelessness given the persistent impacts of the pandemic. But he called the increases in senior homelessness – and an increase in the number of homeless people with disabilities – “especially disheartening.”

The report also showed persistent racial inequities in the homeless community. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders made up 35% of people experiencing homelessness, a figure far out of proportion with their overall population on the island.

The state has, however, seen significant decreases in veteran and family homelessness in the last decade. The number of homeless children on Oahu declined 58% since 2015.

The strides made with veterans and families shows that “we can reduce homelessness if we put resources into getting people housed and if landlords and communities are willing to embrace people,” Koshiba wrote.

He noted, however, that both groups benefited from increased vouchers and that people tend to be more open to housing veterans and families with children in their neighborhoods.

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