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Weak start for state’s homeless initiative

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No one is saying there’s a simple solution to homelessness‚ or even that there is just one solution to this complex problem that involves a range of human situations: families fallen on hard times; people with mental health and/or substance abuse problems; those who’d rather live freely on the streets than be productive, responsible contributors to society.

But as a first move toward addressing homelessness, the call-in initiative by the state’s new administration falls flat.

Lacking financial and housing alternatives, Gov. Neil Abercrombie is asking for community involvement in steering the homeless to existing medical, mental and housing services. The approach has earned praise in other states for linking coordination of government, nonprofit service groups and community members — but Hawaii’s roll-out of the concept leaves much to be desired. If the idea is to send a strong message that homelessness is everyone’s problem and all need to be involved — well, the state has not made it easy and assessible for the public to call in problem spots. Not to be flippant, but a number like 1-800-NOHOMES or 1-800-HOMELES would be more effective and memorable than the obscure phone numbers publicized by the state two weeks ago.

The governor is asking citizens to call hotline numbers and provide detailed information on where homeless people dwell; an outreach team of human service providers is then dispatched and assigned to the case. On Oahu, that would be Waikiki Health Center’s Care-A-Van Program (791-9359); on the Big Island, HOPE Services (935-3050); on Maui, the Family Life Center (877-0880); and on the Garden Island, Kauai Economic Opportunity (245-4077, ext. 228).

As reported Sunday, a two-week check found the call-in initiative was unsuccessful in getting even one person off the streets or beaches, despite some 160 calls and emails statewide. And there remains a stagnant sense of frustration among agencies dealing with homeless people, agencies that see the chronic, hard-core cases. If there is a bright spot, it is that some on the brink of homelessness have called to get help, so hopefully won’t fall into the housing abyss.

Notwithstanding the fact that many of Hawaii’s homeless are already in plain sight, the state failed to fully convey the value of collaboration at the front end between the public and private sectors, and the need to start a tracking system to better deal with the nature of Hawaii’s homeless needs. For example, similar methods can be seen in Minnesota, which launched a coordinated public-private partnership called Heading Home Minnesota last year aimed at ending homelessness in seven counties and six regions.

It was patterned after a successful 2006 launching of a 10-year cooperative plan by Minneapolis and Hennepin County, including 125 nonprofit organizations. In only three years, prevention resources doubled and 1,400 housing opportunities were created, nearly one-third of the plan’s ultimate goal.

Marc Alexander, Abercrombie’s coordinator of homeless programs here, says he soon will unveil a nine-objective plan for the next 90 days. If the state hopes to instill confidence in its efforts, it must offer up a more dynamic, action-oriented and comprehensive approach than its initial tepid foray.

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