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Homeless deaths increase on O‘ahu

Homeless individuals along River Street (2019).

HONOLULU – An analysis by acting Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Masahiko Kobayashi shows 127 people, who were considered homeless at the time of their deaths, died on O‘ahu in 2019. That is up from the year before (120 deaths) and up 46 percent from 2017 (87 deaths). The average age of death amongst this vulnerable population here on O‘ahu was 54.4 years old, well below the national average of
78.6 years old.

“This is just another reminder that leaving those without homes on our streets, sidewalks, and in our parks is not humane,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “That is why the City pursues compassionate disruption and encourages people to seek shelter and permanent supportive housing. The bottom line is we need to continue to show compassion to those that need it most. We recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Pūnāwai Rest Stop in Kalihi which served more than 2,000 unique homeless individuals in its very first year. Connecting our homeless population with services and available housing needs to remain a key focus.” Mayor Caldwell added, “And that is why our HONU (Homeless Outreach and Navigation to Unsheltered Persons) program is so important. In the first nineteen days of this program, 74 homeless individuals sought shelter in these temporary tent-like structures, of which 66 of them have been placed into more permanent shelters or housing.”
“One of our hopes for the City’s new HONU program is that we’ll save lives and give people their future back,” added Office of Housing Executive Director Marc Alexander.

The breakdown of homeless deaths on O‘ahu during the past three years is as follows:
2019 - 127 deaths
2018 - 120 deaths
2017 - 87 deaths

The cause of death for the 127 individuals in 2019 were varied, but some patterns did advance, for example, substance abuse and violence.
“In 2019, the number of homeless deaths reported to the Department of the Medical Examiner slightly increased from 2018,” said Dr. Kobayashi. “Many of the reported cases had a drug history, unclear circumstances surrounding the death, or no physician to sign the death certificate. Although we have not completed analysis on all 2019 cases yet, the number of homeless who died in a homicidal manner increased from three to ten. Drugs, especially methamphetamine, continually take their lives. The average age is 54 years old (ranging from 19 to 88 years), and we have seen many homeless deaths at an old age.”

“The Caldwell Administration adopted the Housing First philosophy in 2013 with Council funding in fiscal year 2015, the first City dollars to address homelessness in decades,” said Pamela Witty-Oakland, director of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services. “In 2020, City dollars in excess of $10 million annually provide Housing First rental assistance, case management and other support programs for the most vulnerable persons/families experiencing homelessness. In 2018 we evaluated progress to date and needs going forward. The advocates for mentally ill homeless persons reported increased psychotic behaviors on the street and individuals who are extremely service resistant.” Witty-Oakland added, “Any success with housing the current population of individuals living with severe mental illness will require professional skills beyond the social services generally contracted by the City. Health care service and Assisted Community Treatment (ACT) is the more appropriate solution.”

Recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show the state of Hawaiʻi now at No. 2 in homelessness per capita. In its
2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, HUD outlines its key findings derived from the 2019 point in time count. The report also outlines decreases in family and veteran homelessness, with the number of homeless families decreasing by
42 percent from 2015 to 2019, and veteran homelessness decreasing 18 percent in that time.

Note: 120 deaths is revised from a previously reported 90 deaths in 2018 and 87 deaths revised from a previously reported 70 deaths in 2017. Revisions to these totals were a result of a thorough case review with a set of new and corrected data that became available after the previous numbers were released. In addition, the above numbers may not reflect deaths that occur in hospitals or other health care facilities.

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