The reason for Oahu’s drop in sheltered homeless? Fewer shelter beds

There aren’t fewer people going into homeless shelters, just fewer beds where they can stay

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Early numbers from this year’s point-in-time count showed a drastic drop in the number of people living in Oahu’s homeless shelters.

But, advocates say, those figures are misleading.

The report, released last month, showed 440 fewer people were taking advantage of emergency and transitional housing compared to the same time last year.

However, data from the state Department of Human Services shows the nearly 20 percent drop in the number of sheltered homeless isn’t because people aren’t going to shelters.

It’s because 409 shelter beds no longer exist.

The sharp decrease ― which led to a 4 percent drop in Oahu’s overall homeless population ― is being blamed on the closure of a transitional shelter shelter in West Oahu and on new government regulations that forced the state’s largest homeless service provider to reduce capacity.

The Institute for Human Services told Hawaii News Now it was forced to cut about 100 shelter beds.

Spokesman Kimo Carvalho said every night the nonprofit’s shelters are close to full as outreach workers serve more people than ever before.

“We’re always trying to do more with less,” he said.

Despite the cuts, IHS still managed to house 3,864 people in 2018.

They weren’t the only agency to see that kind of success.

[Read more: Count: Unsheltered homeless population up 12% on Oahu from last year]

Altogether, Oahu’s service providers moved an average of 377 people off the street and into permanent housing every month last year ― compared to 246 people a month in 2017.

“They bust their butts and do good work,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

Green confirms another reason for the dramatic drop in the number of shelter beds was due to the closure of Ulu Ke Kukui, a transitional housing facility in Maili that could accommodate more than 300 people.

“My understanding is those 312 beds are coming back,” Green added. “We can’t afford to have 312 beds out of circulation.”

The state has said it intends to turn the property into an 'ohana zone ― a place for homeless people to live while they get back on their feet.

But there’s no word yet on when it might open.

Green also acknowledged that the overall drop in the number of homeless people counted on Oahu doesn’t tell the full story.

“We’ve moved a lot of people out of shelters into permanent housing,” Green said. “It’s just some beds came offline and the numbers end up being really complicated to review.”

In the meantime, the new data also suggests the number of people living on the streets of Oahu is the highest it’s been in a decade ― up 12 percent in the past year.

Carvalho says the explanation for the increase is simple.

“Thing is, more people are falling into homelessness at a much quicker rate that we’re moving them out,” said Carvalho. “So we need a lot more options which does require a lot more emergency shelter beds.”

Green said he doesn’t want to see anymore cuts to the shelter budgets until the state gets a handle on the homeless crisis. “None of us want to turn anyone away from shelters," he added. "And the last thing we want to see is more people in the parks with tents.”

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