It’s only been a few years since the city ended its hiatus from any housing agenda, an interval that lasted about two decades. Talk about your deferred maintenance.
As only the second housing director since the city reestablished a housing agency at Honolulu Hale, Jun Yang walked in just moments after a new administration took office, in the midst of a persistent and growing homelessness crisis.
Yang, 34, came to the job after about three years on the staff of Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), the high-profile nonprofit group that advocates primarily for the needs of the low-income population.
Born in Reno, Nev., he first came to Honolulu in 2008 for a short-term FACE project surveying residents in public housing, Yang said. A job offer followed, and when at almost that moment the economy collapsed, just as he was about to be married, he decided he’d better take it. He’s clearly settled into Hawaii, and photos of the couple’s preschooler daughter dot his new office.
The job is focused on working with developers to boost Honolulu’s affordable housing stock, but it’s the new "Housing First" initiative to subsidize apartments around town for the chronically homeless that’s taken much of his attention.
Yang said he’s seen a lot of chronically homeless people who, once they find security in housing, are no longer consumed by fear, trying to protect themselves and their possessions out on the street. With treatment or other services, they can function relatively well in the community, he said.
"John Q. Public thinks, ‘We need safety from our homeless people,’" Yang said. "But in actuality it’s the other way around. It’s the homeless people that actually need more safety.
"And when you provide a secure, healthy place where a chronic homeless person can live, a lot of things can change," he added. "If you have the rest of the stuff covered, you can have a relatively productive life."
QUESTION: Do you think using scattered residences for the city’s chronically homeless — instead of a designated "Housing First" project — will avoid the not-in-my-backyard opposition to such projects?
ANSWER: That’s not the reason why we looked at it, and I don’t know that it is (so) … The way that we looked at it is, if there’s no specific site that’s ready, the community’s not ready for it yet. Because I believe there are some communities that are willing and ready to take on a development, kind of like a specific site for Housing First.
But until then, what works other places and what works here is to be able to find a couple of units within the community and work with the landlord and get a lease for a person. It just brings back dignity into the person’s life.
Q: In what other places has this worked?
A: When we looked through — I have a bunch of studies and plans — across the nation, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Merced County, King County in Washington state, New York, Vermont is doing it, Massachusetts, we looked a bunch of different ways. Part of some of their plans was to do it in kind of a dispersed setting, not in just one project. …
Actually, our homeless service providers are doing it here right now; they started doing it even before the city started talking about it.
Q: The Institute for Human Services does something like this, right?
A: And U.S. VETS. When I asked (its executive director) Darryl Vincent about it, he said, "What we do is we use Craigslist sometimes, and just kind of call the landlord and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are, and we’ve been working with the homeless for a long time, and we have a couple of people who are ready to move in. We’ve worked with them, and they’re ready now.’ And some people are going to say no, but then some people are going to say, ‘Hey, I need the extra income, so let me see that person."
What Darryl does is work with the person, cleans them up and brings them over, and they interview, and they’ll get the lease. Now when they get the lease, this is an understanding between the organization and the landlord that if anything really bad happens —
Q: The organization will back the landlord up?
A: Absolutely. Now, they’re still working on it, and they have good relationships with the community in Waianae, where they’re doing it, and it’s working out.
I see this doing the same in areas like Waikiki and in Downtown areas as well. We just have to work with our service providers and work with the community as kind of education, and also saying, "This is what it looks like."
Because, if we look at it, somebody with substance abuse and mental issues, they’re in our community already. They’re already our neighbors, and some of our community actually know who they are. Some had issues with them in the past, and some haven’t. They’ve just been regularly living in the communities and have been able to function in the communities.
The difference is, our chronic homeless will be able to have a case worker to be able to work with them.
Q: But wouldn’t it be challenging for case workers to get around to the scattered units in the program?
A: At this point, we don’t have a real system in place. We have a few providers who are doing this on their own, trying to work with the state and find the resources that they can to do this. Once we establish a base of a system, I think then we can talk about efficiency in those terms. But right now it’s a homeless service system that’s not working to its potential.
Q: Where does the money come from?
A: The rental subsidy comes from our Home Investment Partnership Program money, which is a federal fund. We get close to $1.5 to $2 million every year (from this), together with the Community Development Block Grant. Those two add up to about $8.5-$9 million that the city gets every year from the federal government, from HUD (Housing and Urban Development) to use for specific programs. …
We’re asking the City Council to allow the city administration to have some priorities, some places in that process. At this point the city competes with all of the nonprofits to be able to get some of those funds. If we want to be serious about our Housing First and working on our chronic homeless, instead of accessing our general funds, we’re asking to use the federal funds that we get every year, and use that for rental subsidies, use that for some of the outreach.
So that shift is not to say, "Give us a blank check" — it’s asking, "We have a specific program that we’re looking for."
The way that it’s written out is eight years out. Within those eight years we’re going to be able to house 500 to almost 600 chronically homeless people from the street.
Q: So what is the timeline over that period?
A: It’s ramping up, so the first two years it’s going to be up to 100 people. And the years following we’re adding about 100 a year. So we’re hoping that the system is all set in place, the legislation’s set in place and things are working smoothly for our providers. …
The city itself isn’t going to be housing anybody. We’re going to be working through the homeless service providers.
Q: How do you answer the critique that providing free housing unfairly rewards people and will lead to worse problems?
A: I mean … every part of our community actually asks for help, from the city, from the state and from the federal government, from birth to the time you die. So I believe that the role of government, be it city, state or federal, is to aid in good policy, where people are not able, to find ways to help the community thrive. Public housing was created for that reason.
We have people on the street. People weren’t on the street in the ’70s. Well, this is a different type of homeless people from in the ’60s and ’70s — people who just decided that they just wanted to be a little bit different.
And then toward the early ’80s, government decided to change the way it dealt with mental health. And that’s where most of our homeless first began — and the homeless crisis first began. And we’ve never been really able to fix the problem. …
Here, what we have is, what can we do as a city to help our entire community — that is, for those who cannot help themselves, help them to get there? That is, help our chronic homeless who are on the street and many times are not able to move to that next step?
We work on roads, we have buses, we have police. And nobody says, "Hey, only police for some areas, and don’t police the other areas." That doesn’t make sense.
Q: Is the hope that money spent on housing assistance will be less than the repeated service calls by ambulance and police, other costs?
A: Yeah. And that money we’re spending right now is coming out of the general fund. It could be going toward things for children, … better park access, … pothole repairs.
Q: Assuming the new sidewalk ordinance gets implemented, are there any sites for relocating the campsites?
A: It’s not a permanent fix, but until we have the policies in place, until we’re ready to really ramp up, we’re not going to say no to having safe areas for our homeless to be. …
We’re looking through all the city-owned properties. What we’re finding is there are little pieces of easements … leftover pieces. Not much.
Q: About your other primary focus, workforce rentals, for those at around 80 percent of median income: How do you see Kakaako redevelopment playing out?
A: I see it as a huge opportunity for the city to begin to look at.
I hope that the 690 Pohukaina (project) moves forward. …
Then you have the property right next to it, the Stanford Carr development, which is a 60-percent-and-below rental. That one I think is a great opportunity for those who really depend on transit to be living right next to transit.