Thursday, November 26, 2015         


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Stop bickering over homeless


Nobody could blame Oahu's homeless families for feeling resentful just about now. This week's forum on shortages in both emergency shelters and long-term housing options was diminished by yet more evidence that public service is giving way to political expedience.

Over the years the brickbats have flown this way and that. In 2006, Mayor Mufi Hannemann took fair criticism from the Lingle administration and others for evicting the homeless from Ala Moana Beach Park without having a fallback plan in place. The mayor defended himself by going on offense. The state, he said, needed this prompt to get moving on a homelessness policy.

As wrongheaded as that was at the time, Hannemann has come around since, at least part way. His staff cited some of the mile markers at the forum on Tuesday: a boost in federal emergency shelter grants, $11 million spent building 361 affordable housing units. There's been the administration's advocacy for the River Street project aimed at helping the chronically homeless, a reasonable initiative that's been opposed by the neighborhood.

This isn't enough, by any stretch of the imagination. And yes, the mayor should have held the forum long before the current election year, when he's vying for the Democratic slot in the governor's race. But the forum was held, and better late than never, judging by the sobering statistics that were shared. A recent count of 4,171 homeless people marked a 15 percent increase over last year's tally.

Even more disturbing: About 86 percent of unsheltered homeless people on this island have lived on the streets for more than a year, according to Debbie Kim Morikawa, Department of Community Services director. This measure of the "chronically homeless" is up from last year's 78.2 percent figure. Nationally, the chronically homeless represent only about 60 percent of the unsheltered population.

We have a very serious problem here, and it's getting worse.

Homelessness is a socioeconomic crisis, one that will take attacks on several fronts: job creation, affordable housing incentives, social service outreach. And creative action is needed to solve the immediate problem of moving the homeless from inappropriate public spaces. All of these efforts will take cooperation at state and city levels.

Yet the state's latest line -- coming from Gov. Linda Lingle's chief of staff, Barry Fukunaga -- has been completely inappropriate: "It's about time the mayor stepped up," he wrote in a commentary prepared for publication, "even though it's evident that he is only doing so because he is running for governor."

Complaining that the mayor is playing politics leaves Fukunaga open to criticism for doing the very same thing; he took this preemptive shot to marginalize a gesture by the governor's political foe. His zeal would have been better directed at a collaborative search for solutions. So lamentable -- since the Lingle administration has points aplenty to share, having helped launch the Next Step shelter in Kakaako and five shelters along the Leeward Coast since May 2006.

In the wake of a recession, when thousands of people face financial struggles, it's a disgrace that this cooperation is every bit as scarce as the decent shelter homeless people desperately need.

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