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Faced with a 74 percent increase in Wahiawa’s homeless count, 20 organizations and handfuls of volunteers converged there Friday to try to coax the homeless out of their encampments and connect them with a range of help, from food to health care.
Crandall Olsen, 41, and his fiancee, Kiana Malama, 40, have been living beneath Wilson Bridge for two years and came to the resource fair at Wahiawa Center for Community Health looking for anything — or anyone — to help them survive.
“We appreciate them,” Olsen said. “They’re a big help. We just thank the Lord that they support us like they can.”
The latest Point-in-Time homeless count, conducted in January, found 385 people in the area from Wahiawa to the North Shore — a 74 percent increase from a year ago.
But Phil Acosta, executive director of Alea Bridge — which helped organize Friday’s outreach — said the event would be considered “a success” if just 20 to 30 homeless people showed up.
Most of Wahiawa’s homeless — especially those with substance abuse and mental illness issues — remain wary of offers of help, especially with so many in the community condemning them, Acosta said.
“We’ll never get them to come out to an event like this,” he said.
At the end of the day, when everyone had been accounted for, Acosta said 40 homeless people had showed up.
He considered Friday’s Wahiawa Homeless Resource Fair a critical first step to getting help for the area’s homeless with the goal to get them into permanent housing.
Acosta said he hopes that those who did show up Friday will remember the experience and spread the word among Wahiawa’s homeless encampments sprawled in the brush along Lake Wilson and under bridges.
Next time, Acosta said he wants to bring help directly to the encampments, where the occupants might be more receptive in the future.
“It’s building that relationship, building that trust,” Acosta said. “We don’t have that trust factor yet.”
Acosta said he hopes that Friday’s experience will eventually lead to the same kind of outreach provided by federal, state and nonprofit groups in September at the entrenched encampment at the mouth of the Waianae Boat Harbor. Another Waianae outreach is scheduled for June 7.
The state helped organize Friday’s effort in Wahiawa and is willing to do more, said Tamah-Lani S.K. Noh, homelessness community engagement specialist with Gov. David Ige’s office.
“The Ige administration is always looking for new ways to collaborate and be more effective and coordinate the awesome work being done in the community already,” Noh said. “We are excited to be involved in the resource fair in Wahiawa.”
The event was held at the new Wahiawa Center for Community Health, where Executive Director Bev Harbin hopes to make treating the homeless a critical part of the operation. Harbin hopes to eventually offer everything from pediatrics to gynecology to vision and dental care.
“All of them need some type of health care,” Harbin said.
The effort also brought out former City Councilwoman Rene Mansho of the Mililani Hongwanji Mission, and Dean Sakamoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s Committee on Social Concerns.
They fanned out along Kamehameha Highway passing out flyers advertising the event, not knowing what kind of reception to expect.
When they ran out of flyers, Mansho and Sakamoto headed back and saw homeless walking out of the fair carrying bags of food, which buoyed their enthusiasm.
The volunteer effort represented faith-based groups’ “values of compassion,” Mansho said. “It was gratifying.”
Sakamoto said people of faith want to do their part to reduce homelessness “but don’t know how.”
Doing nothing certainly isn’t the answer, he said. “Some people think it’ll just solve itself if you just ignore it,” Sakamoto said.
Ruben Thomas, 56, lost both his legs to diabetes two months ago and sat in a wheelchair as homeless people nearby went through bins of donated clothes.
He gladly welcomed a new pair of sunglasses but said his needs run much deeper.
Asked what he hoped to get out of Friday’s homeless outreach, Thomas said, “A new leg.”