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Coordinated efforts helping ease Oahu’s homeless crisis

The “Point-in-Time” counts issued periodically have been used as an important gauge of the state of homelessness in Hawaii, and there the indications are not terribly encouraging: The population living on the streets continues to grow, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.

However, one measure of progress might be found in the signs that the network of public and private agencies are starting to work in a more coordinated, strategic way to steer people away from homelessness.

In an era of scant good news, in which rough-hewn encampments migrate from one spot to the next with every government sweep of the sidewalks, new approaches making gains, however incremental, must be acknowledged.

First, the raw data.

The count is compiled through the Hawaii Homeless Management Information System surveys, according to the Point-In-Time report issued by Partners in Care, a member association of social service agencies working with the homeless population.

And there are limitations to survey follow-up capacity and other factors that can affect the accuracy of the count. In fact, a shortage of volunteers for the effort has been reported, raising questions of undercounting.

Those caveats aside, these results paint a dismal enough picture. The count concluded that as of Jan. 24, 2016, 7,921 were homeless. Hawaii has the unenviable status as the state with the highest homelessness rate, per capita.

The January count represents a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Those tracking the numbers are justified in drawing some optimism from the fact that the previous year, the count had jumped by 10 percent. And the year before that, from 2013 to 2014, the numbers had increased by 9 percent.

But Hawaii will never get a firm handle on the problem without creating a smoother path back to self-sufficiency for many of the people in this troubled population.

Hale Mauliola, the city’s experiment with the “navigation center” approach to sheltering, appears to be settling in well.

The Sand Island cluster of converted shipping containers is virtually at capacity with 80 residents, with more waiting to transition in as others move to permanent housing.

“Coming here it was like being reborn,” said one resident, Clayton Gohier, as he prepares to move to his permanent unit in a few weeks. “It’s clean, good surroundings, nice coming home to something like that. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

Success stories like that are uplifting, and Oahu needs more of them. This model should be replicated in other locations.

Finding locations for navigation centers or other facilities that can bring people off the streets should now be the focus of City Council members, fresh from a visit to Seattle to glean some of its ideas on homelessness.

Even more encouraging, though, was news from the Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) that $600,000 is ready to help as many as 100 working families now homeless.

Under the new program, qualified homeless families will get up to $1,000 per month in rental assistance for as long as six months. They would then be eligible for an additional $500 per month up to another six months.

This is one initiative that could help stem the tide for a key sector of the homeless population. Social service experts agree that once individuals or families fall into homelessness, and the longer they stay unsheltered, the harder it is to get back on track.

The investment in short-term assistance, aimed at overcoming a financial shortfall that often occurs with job loss or family emergencies, should pay dividends if it prevents chronic homelessness.

A similar approach is being tried by Aloha United Way, which is disbursing $4.7 million in state funds to help the needy secure their housing. More of that is going toward helping families on the verge of homelessness than in the “rapid rehousing” of those already unsheltered. AUW should work to achieve something closer to the 50-50 split between those clientele groups that state officials envisioned in making the grant, but the program is a start.

Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the HPHA, said its new rental aid program is a new mode of operations for the agency, and all without the extensive rulemaking and procedures that ordinarily would have caused delay.

The emergency proclamations issued by Gov. David Ige have helped to cut through red tape, and that’s good.

What would be even better, however, would be a determination, by county and state governments alike, to reduce the bureaucratic entanglements as part of the regular order of things.

It’s clear that addressing homelessness is a long-term project, one that involves myriad policy changes and a strategy to free up and create more affordable rentals. Hawaii must learn to deal with it efficiently — and soon.

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