Since starting his new position Jan. 16, Tuesday marked the first time that new state Homeless Coordinator John Mizuno joined in the nationwide census of homeless people, known as the annual Point in Time Count.

Mizuno, along with his assistant Brandon Mitsuda, joined outreach workers with the Hawaii Health &Harm Reduction Center to walk the streets of downtown and Chinatown beginning at 6 a.m. to learn more about Oahu’s homeless, beginning with the standard question of where they slept the night before.

“It was a little emotional,” said Mizuno, who spent years working on ways to reduce Hawaii’s homeless as a state representative representing Kalihi. “I think whoever is the governor’s coordinator on homelessness and housing solutions should always participate in the Point in Time Count.”

According to Partners in Care, which coordinates Oahu’s annual Point in Time Count, 4,028 people were homeless the night of Jan. 22, 2023.

Outreach workers counted the number of homeless people across the islands Tuesday, and the data typically gets reported in the spring.

In 2022, Hawaii had the second-highest per capita rate of homelessness in the nation, according to Gov. Josh Green.

In his State of the State address, Green said Monday that 6,223 people across the islands were homeless — or 43 out of every 10,000 people — which is more than double the national rate of 18 per 10,000 people.

As Mizuno met with homeless people before sunrise Tuesday morning, he told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser that he wants to collaborate with officials from the state, city, nonprofit social service agencies, businesses, community advocates and lawmakers to find solutions to reduce homelessness across all the islands.

As a state representative, Mizuno used his own money to fly homeless people from the mainland back home — as long as a loved one was willing to greet them and take care of them.

The idea later morphed into more formalized programs — and state funding urged by Mizuno — through the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and Institute for Human Services, which operates Hawaii’s largest homeless shelters.

“We want to get as many roofs over the heads of our people who are houseless,” Mizuno told the Star-Advertiser. “If we collaborate and get them to get the proper treatment and wraparound social services, medication, case managers, then we think we can change the tide on how to deal with our houseless.”

On Tuesday the streets stretching from Iwilei Road to River Street were covered with dozens of tents, tarps and makeshift shelters as outreach workers fanned out to count the area’s homeless.

Shopping carts filled with personal belongings were strewn across several sidewalks that were littered with trash.

Along River Street about 30 people sat along the rock wall or slept on sidewalks, some on cardboard, some in wheelchairs.

Many were seniors who had nothing between them and concrete.

Mizuno particularly wants to help homeless senior citizens and embraces Green’s emphasis on creating more tiny-home kauhale as a way to get different homeless populations into perma­nent housing in communal settings.

“The state of Hawaii hasn’t been doing enough for our kupuna who are homeless,” Mizuno said. “Let me say this with complete conviction: We need to start a kupuna kauhale right away.”

Green pledged Monday to create more kauhale in the next few months.

“I will tell you,” Green said, “kauhale will revolutionize how we deal with homelessness.”

Several people in Chinatown on Tuesday represented many segments of Hawaii’s homeless population: Micronesians, military veterans, the working poor, those sexually abused and those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

David Mueller, 64, has been homeless for 30 years and sat on a wheelchair with an injured foot Tuesday morning near River Street watching outreach workers interview homeless people around him.

Asked by the Star-­Advertiser how he ended up homeless 30 years ago, Mueller was blunt.

“Long story short, the drug trip was bad,” he said.

The lack of privacy and hygiene represent the worst parts of being homeless for Mueller.

Nearby park bathrooms — such as at ‘A‘ala Park — are locked at night, and Mueller said homeless people are forced to urinate and defecate on the streets.

“They complain about feces on the sidewalk, but they lock all the bathrooms everywhere,” he said. “We’re human. We still have dignity.

“We are in the most beautiful place in the world, and there are no water fountains and all the bathrooms are locked,” Mueller said. “How stupid is that?”

Nathan Serota, spokes­person for the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, said some park bathrooms are locked because of complaints about violations during park closure hours and criminal activity from the “residentially challenged” nearby.

Above all, Mueller said he is most concerned about senior citizens such as him who are chronically homeless.

“There’s a lot of seniors who could use the help,” he said.

The 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data reported by AARP estimated that Hawaii has 5,116 homeless adults — about one-third of whom are 55 years or older.

Sylvester Hatley, 63, works at 7-Eleven and has lived in the city’s Winston Hale public housing project along River Street for the past three months. He pays $850 a month for his “micro-unit” studio apartment.

Hatley was not included Tuesday in the Point in Time Count because he is currently housed, even though he was chronically homeless after moving from Micronesia in 2000.

Constantly surrounded by homeless people, he said, “Hawaii government gotta do something about the situation here.”

While Hatley was living on the streets, he was most concerned about his safety.

Now, even with an apartment, Hatley said he still feels unsafe walking around Chinatown.

“They stole my phone, stole my property, some want to beat me,” he said.

Tracey Sewell, 42, also said people “constantly want to mess with me because I’m homeless.”

She sleeps in the alley under construction by Fred’s Sundries on North Hotel Street and strolls around River Street during the day.

Sewell constantly feels the scorn and stigma of being homeless.

“People would walk past you and hold their noses,” she said. “We ain’t a zoo exhibit. We’re human, too, but people are so rude.”

Sewell represents a troubling demographic of the homeless population: chronically homeless people with mental health issues. In addition, she said she was sexually assaulted at the age of 16.

“I’ve been on the streets, off and on, for about 10 years, and I’m bipolar,” she said.

Sewell said she grew up by the Hawai‘i Convention Center and eventually moved to Salt Lake, where she worked as an educational assistant at Aliamanu Elementary School.

She tried to complete her associate degree at Leeward Community College, but her relationship with her husband got “tumultuous” and she ended up homeless.

While experiencing homelessness, Sewell said, she has seen “a lot of things that I can’t believe I saw” and worries that if she speaks out, no one will believe her.

She declined to elaborate.

Like many other homeless people on the street, Sewell does not like rules imposed in homeless shelters, including mandatory curfews and eating schedules.

“I don’t need anybody to tell me how I gotta brush my teeth or wash myself,” she said.

Mizuno believes other housing alternatives, including private or family-style kauhale, will be more attractive than dormitory-style shelters for homeless people like Sewell.

“We’re doing our best, and we’re hopeful that Hawaii can lead the nation,” Mizuno said.

Green on Monday thanked the Legislature for appropriating $15 million for more kauhale last session and hopes lawmakers approve another $33 million this year.

“Now we place our trust in John Mizuno,” Green told legislators and visitors who packed the state House on Monday. “I can’t wait to see our mission completed with John on our side.”

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