State ranks 4th worst in U.S. homeless report
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Leeward O'ahu Writer
By Will Hoover
Hawai'i's homeless problem is among the four worst in the United States, according to the first comprehensive, nationwide homeless assessment done in a decade.
"I'm surprised Hawai'i's not No. 1," said Kaulana Park, the state's homeless solutions team coordinator, when told about the report released today by The National Alliance to End Homelessness, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
The alliance concluded that more than 744,313 people are homeless in America, or 0.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to a Gannett News Service story.
The report, which was based on results compiled in January 2005, said Hawai'i's nearly 6,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless population was 0.47 percent of the state's 1.2 million residents — putting the state behind only Nevada, Rhode Island and California in the percentage of their population that was homeless.
"I would bet that we are No. 1 now," Park said. "Because the number of homeless grew here after 2005 — and it grew significantly in 2006."
The national survey's numbers are in line with previous Hawai'i estimates of the number of homeless.
Park said he believes Hawai'i's homeless percentage skyrocketed after late 2004 and early 2005, with tremendous growth on the Wai'anae Coast, where the homeless are encamped on the area's 16 miles of beach parks. That, he said, accounts for the state's race to build emergency and transitional homeless shelters in Leeward O'ahu.
However, Park noted that a precise head count has never been established due to the transient nature of the population and the fact that large sections of the Wai'anae Coast have not been surveyed.
Some people close to the situation on the coast believe the problem has escalated further in the past month.
"I think it is getting worse," said Jo Jordan, who chairs the parks committee for the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board. "And I don't believe it's because of the toothpaste effect — you know, squeeze the tube and they all congregate in one section. I think there are more new people being added to the mix."
Still, Park said the number of homeless people living on the coast easily constitutes the largest population of its kind in the state.
"I would say that a large majority of Hawai'i's homeless population is on the Wai'anae Coast," Park said. "That I know for sure. There are thousands of homeless out there."
He said the state is planning a strategy to compile the most comprehensive count yet of Wai'anae's total homeless population this year.
Jordan said by all accounts the people joining the ranks of the homeless recently are not people coming in from outside the Wai'anae community. She suspects they are part of the community's "hidden homeless" — that vast unseen number of people experts believe have lost their homes to rapidly rising rents and who have temporarily taken up residence with relatives and friends.
Jordan said not only are beach dwellers reinhabiting parks previously improved by the city and county (and thus legally off-limits to all overnight camping), but now they're also crowding onto beaches such as Lualualei Beach Park No. 2 — popularly known as "Sewers Beach" because of its location across from the sewage treatment plant — that were previously sparsely populated.
"When this stuff really started breaking early last year, Sewers had maybe three tents. You go there now and there is no space left. And it all happened in a moment's notice — like maybe since mid-November. Maybe not even that long."
And "Sewers" is only one of the less-visible coast beaches that have seen a recent population explosion, she said.
Jordan agrees with Park's assessment that were the national assessment taken today, Hawai'i's homeless percentage would shoot to the top of the list.
Among other national findings in the report:
The estimate was made by using counts by 463 Continuums of Care, the local and regional bodies that coordinate services to battle homelessness.
Attempts to count the homeless population in the United States have always attracted controversy — high numbers seen as an attempt to exaggerate the problem in order to draw additional funding, and low counts criticized as an attempt to diminish the issue.
The most recent study in 1996 by the Urban Institute estimated between 440,000 and 842,000 people were homeless.
Authors of the alliance's report cautioned that theirs is simply an estimate. Counting people without homes is inherently difficult, they said, and the regional bodies that made the counts used different methods and had different levels of expertise.
This report is also a snapshot estimate of homelessness at one particular time. The Urban Institute study estimated 2.3 million to 3.5 million people are homeless sometime during the year. The alliance study made no similar estimate, but alliance president Nan Roman said her group agrees with the Urban Institute number.
The study's authors said there is not enough reliable information to say whether the 2005 count represents an increase or a decrease in homelessness. But the alliance plans to repeat the count every year.
Gannett News Service contributed to this report.
Reach Will Hoover at email@example.com.
Correction: According to a National Alliance to End Homelessness report released yesterday, Hawai'i has the fourth-worst state homeless problem in America, following Nevada, Rhode Island and California in their percentage of population that is homeless. The report estimated the total number of homeless in America at 744,313, based on January 2005 data. A previous version of this story in yesterday's Advertiser contained incorrect information.