‘Startling’ number of homeless are dying on Oahu streets, new numbers show

Hawaii's homeless crisis has been declared an emergency.
Hawaii's homeless crisis has been declared an emergency.(HNN File (custom credit))
Updated: Jun. 5, 2019 at 8:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As many as 373 in five years.

That’s the number of unsheltered homeless who died on Oahu from 2014 to 2018, according to the Honolulu Medical Examiner.

Marc Alexander, the city Office of Housing’s executive director, said the statistics were “startling” and showed that “our streets and other public areas are not fit for human habitation."

“I was really surprised at the number of people who died unsheltered,” Alexander said.

The cause of death for a third of those who died was listed as substance abuse, suicide or homicide.

Number of homeless deaths over the past five years in O'ahu.
Number of homeless deaths over the past five years in O'ahu.(Ellie Nakamoto-White/Alexandria Ng | Ellie Nakamoto-White/Alexandria Ng)

“Compared to Oahu’s general population, those who are homeless have a higher rate of death from drug abuse, infectious diseases, and in far too many instances, they fall victim to homicide,” said Honolulu Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Happy.

“It’s clear from the data that we gathered that living on the streets leads to an early death.”

Here are the number of homeless deaths per year from 2014:

  • 2018: 90
  • 2017: 70
  • 2016: 78
  • 2015: 63
  • 2014: 72

The average age of death among this vulnerable population was 52.6 years, well below the current life expectancy in the U.S. of 78.6 years old. In Hawaii, the average life expectancy is more than 80 years old.

“We knew this was an issue last year in December when we had a memorial for those that died on the street,” Alexander said. “Usually mental health isn’t the city’s purview, it’s the state’s, but we’re stepping in and working together with them.”

Pamela Witty-Oakland, the director for the city Department of Community Services, said it’s critical to house individuals because “you cannot get well on the street.”

“I think we should be addressing homelessness in addition to the housing programs, and we need to address it from the health care perspective,” Witty-Oakland said.

One of the programs the city is using to put more people in permanent housing is Outreach Navigation, which Alexander says is focusing particularly on “providing psychiatric services on the street for people who are experiencing mental illness or substance abuse disorder.”

Oahu homeless deaths over the last five years.
Oahu homeless deaths over the last five years.

Witty-Oakland, meanwhile, said tackling the unsheltered homeless problem on Oahu is everyone’s responsibility.

“It’s all about community partnership,” Witty-Oakland said, adding she has been asking people to step up and be a part of their church organizations or go through their employers to volunteer at homeless clinics.

“We have groups who step up to volunteer at Sand Island all the time,” Witty-Oakland said. “I realize how sick, ill and vulnerable these individuals are with both physical and mental illness.”

She said there is a direct connection between lack of hygiene and premature death.

Places like the Punawai Rest Stop on Kuwili St., Witty-Oakland said, have been more than willing to take in hygiene products such as toothbrushes and paper towels.

Alexander also said the city was trying to help people “help themselves when they can.”

In a news release, Mayor Kirk Caldwell called statistics “a sobering wake-up call," and said a main priority is to get the homeless population into shelter and off the streets.

Caldwell said the city’s approach of “compassionate disruption,” which began in 2014, is another way to help decrease the number of homeless people in the streets.

Under “compassionate disruption,” the city has sought to move homeless people from parks, sidewalks and bus stops while also bolstering homeless programs.

“As an island community that believes in the principle of ‘aloha,’ true compassion is helping people into stable shelter and supportive housing where their health needs can be addressed,” Alexander said.

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