HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -
State figures released Thursday indicate homelessness on Hawai‘i Island has more than doubled in the last two years. According the annual point-in-time count conducted every January, the homeless population on Hawai‘i Island has increased from 557 in 2013 to 869 in 2014 and 1,241 in 2015.
The number of sheltered homeless have risen from 160 to 220 in those 3 years, while unsheltered have risen from 397 to 1,021 in that same time frame.
"We've been experiencing a high increase in homelessness -- 53% from fiscal year 2013 to 2014. We've seen an increase in all areas of the island-- Hilo, Pahoa, Oceanview, Kailua-Kona, Honoka'a. On nearly every island in every region -- homelessness is increasing," said Brandee Menino, Hope Services Hawai'i CEO.
According to Menino, 60% of the homeless they served last year were completely new to their programs -- and of that number less than 7% were from outside of Hawai'i. She said the vast majority are local residents -- like Nicole Naha, who's from Hilo.
"The cops, the businesses -- they get mad at the homeless, but they don't understand how we feel. We no more nowhere to go," said Naha.
Officials say nearly 90% of Hawaii Island's unsheltered homeless are unemployed, but even those who work are struggling.
"People who are able to find jobs is mostly no more than $8 an hour, so not enough for them to be able to rent a place," described Rita Palma, the Community Alliance Partners Big Island Chair.
While homeless numbers are up, funding for support services is not -- putting providers like Under His Wings Street Ministry at risk of closing. The houseless they serve say that would set them back even more.
"We can shower and eat and find a friend where we couldn't do they even using a public bathroom. So we're on the fringe but this is our home," said Yogi Zen, a regular.
Kalei Hopeau lives in his car with his dog Precious and spends the day at Lincoln Park with a small community of other homeless. He says affordable housing is the ultimate solution.
"People don't choose to be on the streets. They prefer doing it instead of staying at home and not being able to clothe their kids or feed them. Getting a roof over your head doesn't mean anything if a kid is running around in the nude and starving," said Hopeau.
Local officials say the large increase in homeless numbers may be attributed to improved reporting, but they believe the population is actually much higher than state statistics indicate. They say it's just extremely difficult to get an exact count on Hawai'i Island because of how big it is and the areas where homeless seek shelter are quite rural to avoid detection. Officials say more accurate numbers would likely lead to an increase in funding that would ensure critical services continue to be offered.