Growing Homelessness in Hawaii

Picture of Hawaii Homeless

By: Lokelani Wilder 

Homelessness was a state crisis before the pandemic. Now we are not only dealing with a pandemic crisis but we have a crisis within a pandemic – homelessness.  In the midst of the continuing Coronavirus pandemic, state homelessness has increased.   Due to Coronavirus concerns, Hawaii’s annual unsheltered homeless survey has been called off.  The annual Point in Time count typically occurs each January with published results coming out several months later.  Hawaii habitually knows how many homeless are in shelters, but most homeless in Hawaii are unsheltered and are difficult to count.  An unsheltered homeless person resides in a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, and on the street.  

In January 2021, Hawaiian lawmakers received the grim prediction that homelessness has increased.  The increase is expected to top the 37 percent increase that stretched over several years following the 2008 Great Recession. Most of the 2008 Great Recession increases occurred years later from 2014 to 2016, reaching a peak of about 8,000 people statewide during this time. From 2017 until 2020, the count subsided and more or less stabilized at about 6,500 people at the beginning 2020 just before the pandemic.  The 37 percent increase represents 2,100 more individuals among the homeless with the greatest increase being on Oahu, where the homeless population roughly doubled in 2020 with the addition of 1,200 people.  More are expected unfortunately when the ongoing state moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent and government aid eventually runs out.  The state is bracing for those increases which will occur gradually over a longer period of time and on far greater level of magnitude than what we saw occur after 2008 and what we believe is occurring right now. 

Despite the dire January 2021 warnings, lawmakers were also informed about ongoing successes in finding transitionary and permanent housing for the unsheltered amid the pandemic.   Prior to the pandemic, Hawaii’s homelessness decline from 2017 to 2020 was a positive trend with various state and community projects providing the homeless with housing.  Since 2017, the state focused on channeling the homeless into permanent housing and that made a difference until 2020.  

Among more recent projects providing shelter to Hawaii’s homeless have been 90 beds in two Hawaii island hotels used as emergency shelters. Hawaii County officials also built 50 micro-housing units, including some that were set up in a public pool parking lot.  On Maui, similar microunits measuring 8 feet by 8 feet were erected in a county park as a transition to permanent housing.  Maui County also is spending about $6 million in state funds to fix up a dilapidated University of Hawaii Maui College dorm for 12 families. Efforts on Oahu have included the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage facility set up in Keehi Lagoon Beach Park with more than 100 tents. This facility, according to city officials, had served roughly 500 homeless as of September 2002 after opening in April 2020, with many moving on to longer-term shelters or permanent housing.  Unfortunately, temporary homeless shelters around the state had to reduce their capacities for fear of spreading Coronavirus.  

In 2014, Governor David Ige committed his administration to eradicating homelessness in Hawaii.  Part of this eradication plan dealt with building 10,000 new Hawaiian homes.  The homes have been built, but few if any of them are affordable houses or socialized housing for the homeless.  In January 2021, Governor Ige announced a commitment to build another 3,300 homes before the end of his term.  Hawaii is also dependent on federal funding, but as Hawaii reopens after the pandemic, it cannot afford to remove the homeless in perceivably harsh means.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated that it would not provide homeless assistance funds to states that criminalize homelessness. Given that Hawaii has one of the country’s largest growing homeless, we are in a poor position to reject federal funding and assistance from non-governmental organizations.