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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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ffejhonolulu wrote:
Sounds great, but where are we getting the money to build more??
on November 6,2011 | 05:04AM
Anonymous wrote:
Out of Sight-Out of Mind-as the saying goes.
on November 6,2011 | 06:54AM
Anonymous wrote:
Congratulations on some success at actually doing something constructive to help deal with the complexity of this social issue. I would be curious to know the source of funding and how a sale of the home by one of the original buyers is handled? Are there parameters regarding resale price that the original buyers and the Consuelo Foundation have agreed to? Are there plans to replicate the model?
on November 6,2011 | 07:44AM
DowntownGreen wrote:
Once again SA posts my comment under the name "Anonymous". Does anyone out there understand why that happens?
on November 6,2011 | 08:37AM
shakalopaka wrote:
The chronic homeless who who represent the majority of indigents on the streets are mentally ill and/or substance abusers who are not interested in living in a structured environment. Understanding this fact is essential to coming up with a viable solution to the "homeless" problem.
on November 6,2011 | 07:54AM
cojef wrote:
Wise words! The die-hard homeless have no regard for structure in their lives. Hawaii's climate, its people and the environment makes for an ideal paradise for these chronic homeless. There is no betta place. The chronic homeless another class which is in need of psychiatric counseling is the real problem. How do you address these individuals. They are in and out of drug rehabs so often one cannot put a handle how to remedy the hemmorage, Yes its a hemmorage!
on November 6,2011 | 10:35AM
entrkn wrote:
It would not work for all of them but it would and should work for a lot of them and there would be a lot of benefits to our islands.
on November 6,2011 | 11:48AM
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