Hawaii homelessness still rising in wake of recession's job cuts
• Photo gallery: Next Step Shelter
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Despite signs of an economic recovery, advocates warn that many Hawai'i families are still teetering close to homelessness — or falling into it — as they run through their savings.
Shelters islandwide report a steady flow of people coming in who are direct victims of the recession, after losing their jobs or seeing their pay or hours cut.
And preliminary results from the state's annual homeless point-in-time count, conducted in January and to be released this month, show homelessness rose 10 to 15 percent from last year in parts of O'ahu, advocates who oversaw the survey said.
"These are working-class people," said Utu Langi, whose nonprofit manages the state's Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako. Langi said in one week last month, the shelter brought in 17 new families, couples or singles — 10 of whom had lost jobs or hours.
Meanwhile, a federally funded stimulus program that's aimed at homelessness prevention and "rapid rehousing" continues to see overwhelming demand. In the first six months of the program, from October through March, some 1,500 families statewide were assisted with direct aid, largely to cover late rent payments.
The trends come after years of work to address homelessness in the Islands. Since 2006, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars on new homeless shelters and new programs to get hundreds of families off the streets. Those shelters are now full of people displaced in the recession through job losses or pay cuts.
But advocates say the situation is not as bad as feared — thanks in part to many people turning to extended family for help — and they're optimistic the crisis will abate quickly as the economy continues to improve and businesses start hiring again.
Another bright spot is rents, advocates say. Though the market is far from affordable, providers say rentals are easier to find and landlords are more willing to drop rents or make arrangements to keep tenants in by setting up payment plans.
Sandra Miyoshi, head of the state's homeless programs, said the new homeless count conducted at a "point-in-time" — or on a given day — in January shows an increase in homelessness on O'ahu, but a slight decrease on the Neighbor Islands. Miyoshi did not release more details on the count because it is still being finalized.
She did say previous counts showed there were about 2,500 unsheltered homeless and 3,200 sheltered homeless statewide "on any given day."
Providers say though the homeless population isn't ballooning, they see steady demand — sometimes more than they can handle. And several shelters across the state have waiting lists, though some still have space for families.
One of those crammed shelters is Next Step in Kaka'ako, where Trever and Sheri-Lyn Osburn came for help with their three teenagers last month after being laid off from jobs in tourism. The family was paying $1,100 a month for a Waikīkī studio.
"You know how they say you're one paycheck away (from homelessness). We reached that," said Trever Osburn, standing outside one of the cubicles at the Next Step shelter, housed in a large warehouse, where the family sleeps on air mattresses on the floor. The Osburns, who have twin 13-year-olds and a 15-year-old, are frantically searching for work. To help out, their 15-year-old got a job.
The family said they've never been homeless before.
"This is an absolute shock to us," Trever Osburn said.
Advocates say many families, like the Osburns, are still struggling, despite indications the economy is improving.
"It's still really bad," said Christy MacPherson, program manager at Family Promise Hawai'i, which helps homeless families by putting them up in churches and temples and linking them up with services.
There are about 75 families on the waiting list to get into Family Promise.
MacPherson said those families live with relatives or on the streets.
"I had one family living under a tree in a park," she said.
Other homeless programs see high demand. Adam Reeder, a housing specialist at the Institute for Human Services, one of a handful of Hawai'i nonprofits administering some $6 million in federal funds for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program, said he gets 30 to 40 calls a day from families seeking help. Most have been laid off or have seen cutbacks to hours and wages, and are either newly homeless or facing imminent homelessness.
"It's been pretty consistent," he said.
Reeder said many families who call don't qualify, either because they earn too much or they have too much in assets. Those who do qualify must, in most cases, also have some prospect for long-term sustainability: If it's unlikely they'll find employment soon, housing officials try to find other options for them.
'BREAKS MY HEART'
Those who participate most often get direct benefits to pay rent.
At Next Step on a recent weekday, the Osburns were settling in for the night.
The family said they didn't move directly into the shelter after losing their apartment. With their little bit of savings, they checked into hostels in Waikīkī. They slept on the beach and stayed briefly with some friends. Trever Osburn said the hardest part of the ordeal has been seeing his kids living on the streets.
"It breaks my heart," his wife, Sheri-Lyn, said, "because my kids have to go through this." Trever Osburn added he sometimes lets himself cry in a quiet corner just outside the shelter. "How did I end up here?" the 40-year-old asks himself.
Osburn has also resolved never to fall into homelessness again.
"No matter what I have to do," he said.
A few cubicles down, Ariel Afoa is straightening up her small area. Afoa, her husband and their three children — ages 5, 2 and 15 months — share a cubicle, where they sleep on a pile of sheets and comforters because they don't have a bed.
Afoa's husband, Valiano, lost his job at a hotel on the Big Island and the family decided to move to O'ahu to look for new opportunities. They spent several nights on the streets before moving into the shelter about two months ago. Now, the couple both have minimum-wage jobs, and are trying to save up to move into a place.
"I never pictured myself like this," said Ariel Afoa, who has never been homeless before.
"Every night, I just want to pack up and go back" to the Big Island.
But she doesn't — because she's hopeful that things will get better.
"We're getting places," she said.