Up close and personal with the homeless

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A spike in Hawaii County’s homeless population in the past year will likely come as no surprise to those who spend time in downtown Hilo.

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A spike in Hawaii County’s homeless population in the past year will likely come as no surprise to those who spend time in downtown Hilo.

In early February, however, the Tribune-Herald took a firsthand look at a different side of homelessness on the Big Island — a rural population, largely hidden from view.

The sun hadn’t risen when a Tribune-Herald reporter went for a ride-along with three outreach workers from HOPE Services Hawaii, a statewide nonprofit organization providing services to the homeless.

In the field, the outreach workers use only their first names — Leilani, Alison and Leiala — when contacting clients and potential clients, so this story will do the same.

The women’s mission was the annual point-in-time survey to count homeless individuals on the Big Island for the Department of Human Services, and the day’s focus was the lower Puna coastline. They provided snacks and bottled water to survey participants.

The main question was: “Where did you sleep on the night of Jan. 25?”

The final tally of that islandwide survey was 1,241 homeless individuals — 43 percent more than the 869 total last year.

Out of the 1,241 homeless, 220 were housed either in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

Leilani, the expedition’s leader and driver, has been homeless and has dealt with the judicial system after an arrest on drug charges. She credits Big Island Drug Court and the Office for Social Ministry (the former name of Hope Services) for her rehabilitation, saying, “They helped me go in a different direction.”

She and the others proved adept and intuitive in outreach efforts when making contact with homeless people.

“What we do is try to gain their trust,” Leilani said. “If they’ll take my card, even better.”

Just before dawn, Leilani drove down Pohoiki Road, and suddenly, Alison exclaimed, “There’s one!”

Leilani pulled over near a dark van, unseen by the reporter, obscured in the underbrush just off the roadway.

Its lone occupant was a friendly woman who said she had come four months earlier from Oregon and had been unable to find housing she could afford.

Afterward, Leilani said the woman’s story isn’t uncommon.

“They think it’s just sandy beaches and palm trees when they come to the islands,” she said, shaking her head. “Boy, are they wrong.”

A few minutes later, the sun was a horizontal sliver to the east, and Leiala spotted a tent through some trees adjacent to an older-model white car with its trunk open. Leilani pulled off onto a gravel path overgrown by weeds.

“Good morning, sorry to bother you, we’re from HOPE Services,” Leilani said to the three people there, a 61-year-old woman, her son and his girlfriend. All took the survey, the snacks and water, and said they had applied for subsidized housing. The woman said she had lived out of the car for the past two years.

“After you’ve been doing this for a while, you know what to look for,” Leilani said. “You see cars stashed like this.”

Leilani then drove to a secluded stretch of shoreline known as “Gilligan’s Island.” She skillfully piloted HOPE Services’ 4-wheel-drive vehicle over a pitted, bumpy, rocky path — as well as a couple of downed tree trunks — and onto a stretch of sand where the vehicle sunk in, but kept its footing. The HOPE team, accompanied by the reporter, got out of the vehicle and trekked over the sand for a while, in search of more homeless. All three pointed out tents and makeshift palm frond shelters that were hard for untrained eyes to spot. As it turned out, no occupants were found.

Later, at Kaimu Korner Country Store, Leilani encountered John, a personable man who told her his home in Kalapana Sea View Estates burned down and he had been “camping out” in a tent ever since. While he didn’t consider himself homeless, he was houseless, and took both the survey and Leilani’s card.

A bit later, the outreach group saw a smiling man along the roadside, and Leilani pulled over. As it turned out, the man, James, was deaf, but he and the women found a way to communicate. He was also homeless, took the card and the application, and filled out a survey.

The next individual Leilani pulled over for wasn’t as accommodating, accusing the HOPE workers of being “from the government.”

“If they don’t want to engage, you say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and move on,” Leilani said. “Safety first.”

The final stop was in Leilani Estates, where a young woman named Santino lived with her husband and their young son in a van behind a relative’s home. She worked in the food service industry, but the couple didn’t earn enough to afford housing, they said.

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“She’s hardworking, and she’s devoted to her family,” Leilani said. “Hopefully, they can get back on their feet.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiit ribune-herald.com.