‘No surprises’ in homeless count

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The leader of a nonprofit group providing services to the homeless said there are “no surprises” in the drastic increase in the number of homeless people on the Big Island.

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The leader of a nonprofit group providing services to the homeless said there are “no surprises” in the drastic increase in the number of homeless people on the Big Island.

“We know it’s on the rise as more and more families and individuals lose their income, lose their jobs, and have no other resources to maintain their housing,” Brandee Menino, chief executive officer of HOPE Services Hawaii Inc., said Friday.

Jeremy McComber, HOPE Services’ operations director, said the group, which operates as part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and was formerly known as Office for Social Ministry, has about 20 programs for homeless individuals, and is the “largest provider of (transitional) shelter on the Big Island, with about 600 beds around the island.”

The total homeless count of 1,241 homeless taken in a weeklong survey conducted early this year is probably on the low side, Menino said.

“It’s a difficult task to get an accurate count in a single week, given our land mass and rural areas,” she noted.

Menino added that the biggest challenges faced in trying to get an accurate count of the homeless population are “not enough time and volunteers needed to canvass and cover the large land mass.”

“We need more volunteers from all areas on the island that know their neighborhoods to help identify households living in unsheltered situations,” she said. “Many households living in buses, tents, cars and substandard housing — tarps, pallets, skips, no running water, power, etc. — do not consider themselves homeless.”

Although counting the homeless in a week on an island with a land mass of more than 4,000 square miles is a daunting task, Menino said the organization is “improving the way we do business.”

“This year, we targeted the count and sought out those who were already registered with our agency — we went off a list from our database — and reached out to community associations in addition to our usual canvassing efforts of the entire island,” she said.

The burgeoning population of homeless on the Big Island is likely to continue rising, said Kaui Alexander, HOPE Services’ care coordinator.

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“A lot of families are just one setback away from becoming homeless. A job ending or a health problem that arises can quickly lead to the inability to not be able to pay rent or utility bills, afford child care, put gas in the car, and families are left having to make tough decisions.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaii tribune-herald.com.