On the Big Island, homeless crisis has first responders stretched thin

On the Big Island, homeless crisis has first responders stretched thin

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just off one of Hilo’s main roads is a dirt path littered with garbage. Go a little farther and you’ll find people living in the woods ― hidden but close to town.

On a recent weekday, Hope Services outreach workers lead Lt. Gov. Josh Green and County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy to the encampment in a bid to underscore just how big ― and difficult to manage ― the homeless crisis on Hawaii Island has become.

“It seems rather remote,” Loy said. “But just a half a block away, you have Target and Walmart and just businesses in general.”

“It’s pretty rough back here," Green added, looking around.

Piles of rubbish littered a foot path into an encampment off a busy road in Hilo.
Piles of rubbish littered a foot path into an encampment off a busy road in Hilo.

Earlier this month, Green spent a week traveling the state in an effort to better understand how Hawaii’s homeless crisis is impacting each island.

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During a sit-down meeting, Loy told Green homelessness is taking a toll on the county’s resources at a time when the island is also struggling to recover from last year’s eruption and other natural disasters.

"Our emergency services are really feeling the pressure,” she said.

Loy added Hawaii County’s first responders have been overwhelmed with 911 calls about people who are homeless. The calls range from reports about trespassing and theft to fights and vandalism.

Communities are also seeing other disturbing trends.

“They’re seeing drugs or drug use in kids as young as 12," Loy said.

Not a new problem, but a worsening one

For years, Hawaii Island has had a housing shortage. But it got exponentially worse last year when Kilauea’s eruption in lower Puna destroyed more than 700 homes.

There aren’t enough shelters, either.

If you’re a man, there are two options. And both facilities are always at capacity.

A homeless man, who called himself Anson is living in the woods, but said he wants to go to a shelter.

When asked what the barrier was to getting in he said, “The waiting list. I would like to get more stable.”

There is some relief in the short-term forecast.

The Big Island is transforming the old Memorial Hospital into Hawaii Island’s first ohana zone. Officials hope to have it open by the end of summer.

Work on the ground floor is underway, with bed space for up to 50 men.

A shelter for families is also set to open in Kona later this year. It will be the first one in West Hawaii.

There’s also talk of building a kauhale for families on the windward side of the island, but there’s no word yet on exactly where.

“A kauhale is an outdoor community,” said Green. “Very low impact. Small houses. Very likely quickly constructed with things that are recycled. Like containers.”

In Hilo town, word of the new projects is welcome news.

Young children are among the dozens camping in Mooheau Park. They play among the mentally ill and addicts.

‘The bums have no respect’

Hilo Bayfront business owners have an up close view of what’s happening on the streets.

“There’s a difference between homeless people and bums,” said businessman Frank Lucero. “Real homeless people, they’re just looking for somewhere safe to sleep. But the bums have no respect.”

Across Hawaii Island, HNN found homeless people who had just stepped off an airplane.

Evan Taylor and his girlfriend flew into Kona from Kentucky two weeks ago.

“We’ve been staying here and there. We started out on farms but it didn’t work out for us,” said Taylor. “The last couple days we’ve been staying on beaches.”

On this day, they showed up at Hope Services West Hawaii for a meal ― along with more than 80 others.

The agency’s deputy director says the majority of their clients have one thing in common.

“I would say 80 percent of them have substance abuse along with mental health issues,” said Ipo Morgan. “What we really lack is mental health resources.”

She says the island is in desperate need of psychiatrists and outreach workers who can build relationships with the homeless.

Because the longer people live unsheltered, Morgan said, the harder it is to get a roof over their head.

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