Tuesday, October 13, 2015         


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It is possible to help the homeless

By Jon K. Matsuoka, San Vuong and Patria Weston-Lee


With APEC approaching, government officials are scurrying to clean up Hawaii's streets and America's image by pushing the homeless out of the sight of foreign diplomats. This expensive practice not only reflects a mentality of blaming the victim, it effectively absolves government from meaningful attempts to address the real problem.

Efforts to move homeless people into shelters and find them jobs are noble attempts to address the symptoms. But the issues are more deeply embedded in our economic system. Hawaii's housing is among the most expensive in the nation. On a per-capita basis, we have one of the lowest levels of owner-occupied home ownership and highest levels of absentee ownership. Paired with median income levels, home ownership is unattainable for most local families. And those on the lowest economic rung are predisposed to living on the streets, parks and beaches. The situation is only growing in severity.

In 1993 the Consuelo Foundation decided to experiment with creating a community and housing opportunity for low-income families on the Waianae Coast. Seventy-five at-risk families were selected to engage in a self-help housing program. Some had been living on the beach, some had been in substandard housing, and all were unable to afford their own home.

The foundation bought 14 acres of land in Waianae Valley and began to develop the project, named Ke Aka Ho'ona, or the "Spirit of Consuelo."

In 2001, the last of the eight increments was completed, with a total of 75 homes. The average price of the houses was $56,000, based mainly on the costs of materials. The homeowners also entered into a lease-to-own land agreement with the foundation, which absorbed the infrastructure and administrative costs. As a result, the cost of homeownership is very low, with most carrying monthly home mortgages of about $500.

From the beginning, the Consuelo Foundation's vision was to build more than affordable houses. Prospective residents were required to commit to covenants promoting harmonious living between families, strong mutual support among neighbors, freedom from substance abuse and family violence, and a safe and aesthetic environment for children to grow and thrive. Getting the families to buy into these values was not difficult.

Years later, the signs of a successful experiment at Ke Aka Ho'ona are manifested in rates of emotional and financial family stability, the educational success of offspring (e.g., three valedictorians and one, on scholarship, admitted to Punahou School), no confirmed incidences of child abuse and neglect, and high levels of social cohesion and capital among neighbors.

The primary lesson learned is that it took only a house to relieve families of the huge stressors associated with housing and economic survival, and energies could be redirected into raising healthy children.

Yes, the experiment was expensive, but when you consider the cost of social outcomes that might have been, and the associated service requirements -- temporary food and shelter, public safety, social services, education -- and the expensive undertaking of removing homeless people from public view, over the long-term, we feel that money was saved and a sector of society was elevated to a higher standard of living.

Jon K. Matsuoka is president and CEO of the Consuelo Foundation, San Vuong is its chief financial officer and Patria Weston-Lee is its senior program specialist.

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