The former vicar now serves people as the state’s homelessness coordinator
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 15, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 6:26 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Marc Alexander, 53, has found a new home for himself among people who have none.
It's tough for anyone to change careers, but landing as an inactive priest after being vicar general — the No. 2 post in the Catholic diocese — was an especially big leap.
And his new job is no task for the faint of heart, either: coordinating the state's efforts to counter its burgeoning homelessness crisis.
Alexander noted that beyond the people inhabiting the streets and shelters, Hawaii's "hidden homeless" — those who are doubling up other families in homes designed for one household — have been estimated at 100,000. Further, there are many more people living a paycheck or two from destitution.
Alexander is at work developing a "90-day plan" — a series of short- and medium-term initiatives that will be unveiled in a few weeks — and he's excited about many of the new initiatives being fired up now. One is a partnership between the Next Step shelter and the Hawaii Community Development Authority that enlists residents of the Kakaako shelter in area cleaning and beautification. They earn money to go toward a deposit on their own home.
The son of two Catholic converts, Alexander said his faith is still important to him, adding that he still has ample opportunities to follow its precepts about service. Lots of face time, with the faces of real people in trouble.
"I've had dozens of meetings with service providers and agency people, but also extensively with the homeless, to ask them, ‘Well, what do you need? What do you want from us? How can we help you?'
"Because I think it's always dangerous when you only talk to the people that supposedly know all the answers and provide the services," he said. "Let's talk to the people we're called to serve."
QUESTION: Some advocates say that outdoor “tent cities” are needed, because some homeless people can’t adapt to shelter regimentation. Do you buy that?
ANSWER: Bottom line is, no, I don’t buy that. I think that may be the easy solution, that may be the quick solution that people have in mind, but I think in the long run it creates more problems for us. And people of good will can disagree on this. There is no magic answer. … If we don’t take care of the longer-term issues, the bigger issues, then we are not going to eliminate homelessness … and that’s things like affordable housing, it’s workforce development. What we really need are more housing options so we can move people into permanent housing with supportive services.
Q: What about those who come to Hawaii from elsewhere and and live on the street?
A: There are some groups that are here, individuals who are here, maybe not for the best reasons. But it’s certainly not a majority. … Something like 30 percent of our homeless are Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians. And well over 60 percent of our homeless have been residents of Hawaii for 10 years-plus. … The majority is families, with children; and people are working, just haven’t been able to make it.
Q: Why do you think the idea of enlisting shelter residents in the outreach to those on the streets will help draw more people to come to a shelter?
A: One of the things that people forget is that sometimes people don’t want to come to some of the resources that are available because they’re scared. They’ve had a bad experience, maybe, in the past. So sometimes they need to build up a relationship with the person who’s suggesting to them that they come to one of the shelters. … As bad as maybe a tent is on the street, it’s something they know, as opposed to something they don’t know.
Q: There’s a big push for “housing first” programs. How do you deal with the opposition from neighbors?
A: I think part of it is education, because I think the whole thing of “housing first” is still very new to us here in Hawaii, and it goes against intuition. … Starting back in New York with the Jericho Project, and now throughout the country, they have found that when you give people housing first, provide that stable shelter, then these people are more open, more willing and able to receive the services that get them off drugs or provide the mental health services, job training, etcetera. It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes that’s how life works.
Q: But there was outreach with the proposal for the River Street project that the community opposed, right?
A: Well, I don’t want to judge that particular experience, but I do think one of the other things that has to be done, besides educating people in general about how “housing first” works — and I think this is a key strategy for dealing with homelessness — I think also when we start looking at specific locations, even before that, we need to involve communities. … When it comes from the community, then it’s a lot easier to work with that community.
Q: Do you think neighborhood people are disconnected from the homeless people who live there?
A: Even the way we talk about people who are homeless. We say, “the homeless.” I mean, I do it all the time. But we really should say, “people who are homeless.” Because it reminds us they are people first, not homeless first. … When people are in a really difficult situation, for whatever reason, after a while, they start to see themselves in a different light, too. And I think part of our task as a community is to make sure every child, every woman, every man knows that they have a basic dignity that no one can remove, that no one can take away. … The majority of the people who are homeless are in these categories, these situations, not the lazy person trying to use the system. Are there some? Of course. We’re not naive. But that’s not the majority.
Q: How did you come to the decision to change your vocation?
A: For a number of years I’ve thought about making a change. It’s just that a number of things came together to make this seem to be the appropriate time to do it.
Originally I was going to go on a sabbatical, and that was my game plan, but then this opportunity came up, the governor offered this position. I had put in an application, because everyone had to go through the Internet, right? Some friends of mine said, “Try it — get in the hopper.” I just didn’t think anything would happen this quickly.
Q: How would you characterize the thought process behind this? You didn’t feel it (the priesthood) was your vocation anymore?
A: I served 25 years, I was just thinking, “Do I really feel that I’m able to make another commitment for another 25 years?” Given some shifts in the church’s direction, and my own personal issues and reasons, I decided, maybe not. It was a difficult decision, because I love being a priest and serving the people. I always wanted to do something that makes a difference in people’s lives.
My parents were both converts; my father was Jewish, my mother was Shinto. The faith was something we chose, and it’s very important to me. But there’s a difference between sitting in the pews and preaching from the pulpit, and, quite frankly, sometimes it’s hard to explain some of the decisions and directions of the church.
And as the theologian for the diocese, I’d be trying to explain things that I find hard to comprehend. … It’s not any one thing, it’s the confluence of things.
Q: What was your background working with the homelessness issue?
A: I’ve worked with homelessness because of the social services part of the church’s life. I worked with Catholic Charities ...
Q: But weren’t you associated closely with the opposition to gay marriage?
A: Yeah, I knew that was going to come up. But the point is, I started working with the Legislature back in ’94 in a serious way, and from back then my big issue was always affordable housing.
Q: Didn’t the civil unions issue overwhelm everything?
A: It did. You know, I understand, because — controversial! And I was very much involved with that. So it garnered a lot of attention. But my area of greatest interest actually was in the area of housing and homelessness.
Q: Do you feel this job is suited to you?
A: I do feel like it is a kind of calling. I really do. I wanted to do something that hopefully benefits the community. It’s public service. … Homelessness is part of the bigger issue of poverty. And we have to address poverty in this country, and in this state.