- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii, which has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation, saw its homeless population grow 4 percent over the past year.

It was the fifth consecutive year Hawaii’s homeless population grew, despite a trend of decreasing homelessness throughout the rest of the country.

Service providers blamed the lack of affordable housing for the problem that’s plagued the island state.

“This is about housing, not homelessness, and it really is going to take a community collaboration among all cross sections in order to see this rate go down and to hit level zero,” said Jen Stasch, director of Partners in Care, a Hawaii coalition of service providers, government agencies and others that work on homelessness issues.

People involved in the annual statewide homeless count say the number could be higher than the 7,921 reported, in part because some are unwilling to be surveyed and counted. The report says it’s possible that the sheltered homeless population on Oahu was under-counted because shelters were undergoing a database transition during the tally.

The state’s un-sheltered homeless population grew 12 percent over the year.

Kauai Island saw the greatest increase, with a 30 percent bump from last year. The rural island’s small population means there are fewer options for housing and services, said Debra de Luis, board member with Kauai Community Alliance, which works on homelessness. She says the increase may have been due to more volunteers working on the count.

Many homeless people are earning $0 to $700 a month, not nearly enough for market-rate housing, she said. She encouraged people with “ohana” units or extra rooms in their homes to rent them to low-income people.

“That would be an ideal place to start, with resources that are sitting unused,” de Luis said. But so far, people aren’t clamoring to help in that way. A landlord presented with a potential tenant with a federal housing voucher told de Luis he could get more money for his rental by placing it on the open market, she said.

Hawaii is about 60,000 units short of what it needs to house everyone over the next five years, according to a study conducted for the state in 2014. On Wednesday, Gov. David Ige signed a bill setting a goal to have 22,500 additional affordable housing units ready for occupancy over the next 10 years.

“We do know that there’s a direct connection between homelessness and housing and the availability of housing in this community,” Ige said at the bill signing.

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