Defining an ‘unsheltered’ Hawaiian
Any time now, the results of the annual Hawaii homeless “Point In Time” count will be announced.
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Any time now, the results of the annual Hawaii homeless “Point In Time” count will be announced. While the results are being finalized, reports from previous years will likely show that approximately one-quarter of persons residing in shelter facilities, either emergency shelters like the Institute for Human Services (IHS) or Next Step, or transitional facilities like Weinberg Villages Waimanalo or Ulu Ke Kukui, self-identify as Native Hawaiian.
An additional one-third of persons defined as living unsheltered, living on the streets, or — as the federal government labels it — “living in a place not fit for human habitation,” will also self-identify as persons of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
With a total of more than 7,000 persons reported as homeless during last year’s Point in Time survey, the one-day count of self-identified Native Hawaiians experiencing homelessness is typically around 2,000. On a yearly basis, data on over 4,000 Native Hawaiians are entered in the state’s Homeless Management Information System.
Interestingly, the federal government, which has seen the need to create five categories of gender identification, still lumps together Native Hawaiians with other Pacific Islanders in its census categories.
Reports to the government and even those in some of the local Hawaii-based reports similarly do not disaggregate these ethnicity categories.
Problems with the accuracy of these annual counts are well known. Considering the lack of resources and infrequency of the count, it is not surprising that validity suffers. The year-to-year changes are often just the product of this vacillating effort.
But to some extent, whether the count is off by a couple dozen or a couple hundred misses the larger issue of who is defined as homeless, who is in control of this definition, and whether this is an appropriate definition. This becomes particularly problematic with respect to the Native Hawaiian community.
As a researcher who has felt the wrath of politically correct professors and advocates, it is interesting that the methodology employed on an annual basis by the homeless continuums has not drawn similar criticism. Indigenous methodologies require both the participation of representatives from the community as well as the ability to critique and, if needed, modify the use of Western terms when “scientifically” defining an indigenous population. The homeless count does neither.
Certainly, some advocates, homeless themselves, have at times pressed the point of calling themselves houseless — not homeless — and maintained that living on the aina can be completely appropriate for members of the Native Hawaiian community. The language used in the federal definition — “not meant for human habitation” — is insulting language for any person labeled as unsheltered, and particularly problematic and derogatory for an indigenous person.
Many Hawaiians may self-report that they consider themselves homeless and are in fact living in a place they feel is not neat for human habitation. Others may not. Many persons living in the brush near the Waianae Boat Harbor have told providers who will listen that they do not consider themselves homeless or houseless. Over the years, most homeless workers have encountered similar feelings on the Waianae Coast and throughout the islands of Hawaii.
The continued high levels of persons not living in houses or apartments of all ethnicities, despite the yearly successes of agencies in helping thousands of persons return to rental housing, should give reason to open a greater dialogue in Hawaii and with the bureaucrats that control the federal definitions of homelessness and houselessness. It would seem that knowing the difference between the two among the Kanaka Maoli is important.
Michael Ullman, Ph.D., is a researcher and program evaluator who has worked in homeless services nationally for more than 20 years.