LIHUE — In the last fiscal year, the state’s homeless population increased by 3 percent. On Kauai, however, homeless numbers dropped nearly 10 percent, according to a new University of Hawaii report.
Of Hawaii’s 14,282 homeless people in 2014 (an increase from 13,853 in 2013), Kauai accounted for 632 (down from 699 in 2013) — or 4.4 percent.
MaBel Ferreiro-Fujiuchi, CEO of Kauai Economic Opportunity, Inc., said she could not explain the island’s drop and hasn’t noticed a decrease in demand for KEO services.
“It’s a good thing,” she said of the reported decrease, which she believes could be attributed to an increase in services, as well as homeless people leaving the island for one reason or another. “But I don’t hold my breath on that because it can change really quickly.”
It wouldn’t surprise her to see numbers increase in coming months, with winter right around the corner and the Mainland already experiencing severe weather.
“If you’re homeless, you try to go where you can survive a little bit better,” Ferreiro-Fujiuchi said.
Originally from Southern California, Mark Anthony Smith, 34, is homeless on Kauai.
Smith was diagnosed with a mental health disorder while he was a teenager; his family disowned him after he started taking drugs. He cleaned up his act, got married and was pursuing vocational schooling when he relapsed. His wife divorced him seven years ago, and from there he became part-time homeless, living on his disability money and working around the country.
“I have been clean from meth for seven years,” Smith said.
Smith was most recently in Alaska for several months, working at the canneries. He said the shelters there have a “30-day in and 30-day out” rule, but it worked because there were two shelters in the town where he worked.
A lot of homeless people die in Alaska because of the cold, he said, so when the work dried up he used his disability check to fly to Kauai. Now, he finds himself on Kauai’s streets with two serious medical conditions that can’t be treated until he has a residence.
The latest findings on homelessness were released Friday in the “Homeless Service Utilization Report: Hawaii 2014,” a joint study by the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and the state Department of Human Services. Much of the statewide jump can be attributed to increases in Hawaii County, which experienced a 49 percent bump in its homeless population since 2013.
Statewide, 1,767 adults (16 percent) reported living in Hawaii for less than five years, with one-third arriving in the past 12 months. On Kauai, 83 (13 percent) arrived in the last five years and 20 (3.8 percent) in the past 12 months.
“We kind of see new people all the time,” Ferreiro-Fujiuchi said.
Joni Lesser-Benton, a clinical social worker on Kauai, said that while she hasn’t seen an increase in homeless clients in her private practice, she has noticed new faces on the street.
One possible cause, she said, is what is known in the medical field as “buff and turf,” a practice in which patients are medically stabilized and given a ticket and enough medication to get to another place — in this case, by plane to Hawaii.
Lesser-Benton said she saw an influx in the number of victims of this practice while working in Santa Cruz, California, and expects it is occurring here as well.
“The agencies just get tired of folks that they see over and over and over again, and they’ll just put somebody on a bus or plane or train,” she said.
The result, according to Lesser-Benton, is mentally unstable people finding themselves in an unknown place with no support, which can send them into crisis mode.
The recent UH study also details the number of people considered chronically homeless. On Kauai, 125 individuals (26 percent) fell into that category, meaning they have been homeless continuously for at least one year or have had at least four episodes of being homeless in the past three years.
One Kauai resident who fits that definition is a man who identified himself solely as Jeff. A recovering alcoholic, now five years sober, Jeff has been living out of his van for the last three years. But he doesn’t see himself as homeless; rather, he calls it retirement.
“It’s a two bedroom,” he laughed through his long, graying beard as he made coffee.
One bedroom inside. Another on the roof, where he often sleeps to watch the stars.
While Jeff claims to chose his lifestyle, he admits it is not easy. People like him are often stigmatized.
“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” he said. “But people treat you like it is.”
Jeff moved to Hanalei from Los Angeles in 1979 and has been here ever since. He lived in houses and worked — or “played the game,” as he calls it — for 30 years. Now, he doesn’t. And being the religious man that he is, Jeff points out his similarities to Jesus, who also had no home or cell phone.
Asked what it takes to live his transient lifestyle, Jeff paraphrased a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Mind your pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.”
In 2014, according to the study, Kauai’s homeless consisted of 486 adults and 146 children. Persons in families accounted for 45 percent.
While Hawaii’s warm weather may be a factor in having one of the country’s highest rates of homelessness, Ferreiro-Fujiuchi said she doesn’t believe it makes it any easier.
“I don’t think there is a good place to be homeless,” she said.
Lesser-Benton points out that the high cost of living counters the warm climate. And once here, she said it is hard for the homeless to scrounge together enough money to leave.
“Trapped in paradise,” she said.
Among the services offered by KEO are its Care-A-Van program, a mobile unit providing services on-site where homeless congregate, as well as an emergency shelter and transitional housing program.
In any given month, the Care-A-Van services between 250-300 individuals, providing them with basic medical needs, living items and food, according to Ferreiro-Fujiuchi.
County of Kauai Housing Director Kamuela Cobb-Adams said the Housing Agency administers assistance through Section 8 and rental opportunities at Kalepa Village in Hanamaulu or Paanau Village 1 or 2 in Koloa; however, both projects tend to be full and there is a waiting list.
Since 2008, the county has opened up new affordable units in Waipouli, Lihue and Koloa, according to Cobb-Adams. Affordable projects are under construction in Princeville, Lihue and Eleele.
“We continue to seek new opportunities for affordable housing and are moving forward with Lima Ola in Eleele (potentially 500 affordable units), 130-unit project in Poipu and the second phase of the Rice Camp Senior Housing in Lihue as quickly as possible,” she wrote in an email.
The UH report comes at time when Honolulu is seeking ways to solve its homelessness problem. In November, the Institute for Human Services launched an initiative to help homeless people find their way back to the Mainland.
To view the 2014 Homeless Service Utilization Report, visit http://uhfamily.hawaii.edu/.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.