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Hawai‘i Homeless Update: Movement On The Street In COVID-19 Shutdown

Noe Tanigawa
Hawai'i Public Radio
Kaka'ako, O'ahu. Coordinated help for homeless and housing insecure people can be found by calling Aloha United Way's 211 phone line.

To date, only one homeless person in Hawai‘i has tested positive for the coronavirus. That person was connected to the cluster at Maui Memorial Hospital. On O‘ahu, home to 4,450 homeless individuals, service providers are seeing a lot of movement on the street during this COVID-19 shutdown.  Here's what the experts see ahead.

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio
Hawai'i Public Radio

On the street, outreach workers know their beat, but there’s been a lot of movement lately, according to Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, a coalition of homeless service providers.

“Sweeps have restarted again, so catching up with those folks and making sure we stay connected with them is very important," says Thielen. "We’ve also seen a lot of people that, because of this current crisis, are more willing to go into shelter. For those people who are scared or feel insecure on the street, we have more options for them now.”

The new Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage (POST) facility run by the Honolulu Police Department at Ke‘ehi Lagoon is available for homeless who want to quarantine themselves. A new Kaa'ahi Street triage center is open for any homeless who do test positive for COVID-19. So far, only one has on Maui.

“The youth on the street is a big worry of ours," Thielen continues. "There are very few programs that work with the youth. The drop-in centers have had to be shut down, and there’s not enough shelter for youth at this point.”

At the Institute for Human Services (IHS) in Iwilei, social distancing has been achieved by moving families into housing and not replacing them. There is a continual influx and outflow in all the facilities, according to Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS.  Mitchell says aid programs need to focus on keeping people in their homes, because it is harder to service them once they are on the street.

“One thing that I do see is that there are a lot of people who have addictions, alcohol and other substances, opiates, says Mitchell. "We need to be aware some of those people are very much going to need support and it’s an opportunity for them to get treatment if they want it.  If they do want it, we want to be ready. Unfortunately, I think we still have a ways to go to provide what we call treatment on demand.”

Amidst all the need, a new coalition has sprung up,  and creators say joining these key concerns -- behavioral health and homelessness -- is a new approach that can maximize service. You can check the Behavioral Health and Homelessness Statewide Unified Response Group (BHHSURG) site.  There’s information, and a screening tool for COVID-19 testing, as well as screening for behavioral health.

The governor’s coordinator on homelessness, Scott Morishige, agrees that behavioral health will be an area of need going forward, even in the general population.  He says he has not seen an uptick in homeless numbers, but on the 2 to 3-month to one year timeline, things could change.

“I think we may potentially see increases in homelessness as people are impacted by the economic slowdown and the reality that many jobs lost may not necessarily return.” Morishige points out that between the recession of 2009 and 2016, the number of homeless statewide went up 37%.

“We saw the numbers increased dramatically not only among single homeless individuals but also among homeless families," he continues. "And only recently did we see the numbers start to turn in the other direction.”

It took seven years before the numbers of homeless finally started to come down and by last year, 2019, homelessness had decreased 19%. Morishige cautions that decreasing trend is not expected to continue.

For those who need help, Thielen, Mitchell and Morishige recommend Aloha United Way’s 211 help line and website.

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