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Hawaii’s work to ease homeless making progress, federal official says

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Improvised shelters on state land along Nimitz Highway were removed by a city crew in early June.

Hawaii still has the highest per capita homeless population in the country “but things have started to gel” in the islands, according to the western regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“It’s all just starting to work,” Katy Miller, the Seattle-based regional coordinator, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser during a visit on Tuesday. “If this momentum continues we will see great progress.”

The federal official got her first look at Hawaii’s homeless crisis in the summer of 2015 when she saw a then-sprawling Kakaako encampment that had grown to more than 300 people.

Since then, state and city officials have embraced best practices being implemented around the country to deal with homelessness, and Hawaii is considered a leader in changing homeless shelter contracts to make them more focused on getting people into permanent housing, Miller said.

Through the state Department of Human Services, homeless coordinator Scott Morishige “really led the way” in pushing island shelters to change, Miller said.

“All of the cities are needing to do this,” she said. In Seattle the city is embracing “all of the things Scott did” with shelters, Miller said.

Shelter providers in Portland, Ore., like those in Hawaii, did not like the new focus on so-called “performance-based contracts,” Miller said. “It was very scary to people and it didn’t go over very well. But the reality is that it absolutely had to happen.”

West Coast cities with lots of people living on the street “really need to look at their shelter system,” Miller said. The goal is to make shelters “a place where someone wants to go into and lead to something better.”

In the latest nationwide homeless head count conducted in January, Hawaii’s homeless population decreased 9 percent statewide. Honolulu was the only county that saw an increase — of 19 people.

Statewide, the number of homeless people decreased by 701, to 7,220 — down from the 7,921 counted in January 2016.

Based on the 2016 numbers, Hawaii had the highest per capita homeless rate in the country. The newest rankings based on the January numbers won’t come out until later this year.

Hawaii’s homeless problem is driven primarily by the high cost of housing — and not the allure of year-round, warm weather that some believe draws homeless newcomers to the islands, Miller said.

Around the country, Miller said people want to believe their community’s homeless population is driven by outsiders.

“In every single community the myth is: ‘Why are they coming to my community? If I build the services (for the homeless) we’ll just get more.’ It’s just not true,” Miller said.

Wetter — and much colder — West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Seattle have their own locally grown homeless problems.

During January’s nationwide homeless Point-in-Time Count, King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, saw its homeless population jump from 10,688 people in 2016 to 11,643 in January.

More alarmingly, the number of people living unsheltered there — or on the streets — grew from 4,505 in 2016 to 5,485 in January.

“What we’re seeing on the West Coast is large numbers of unsheltered people,” Miller said. “Fundamentally it’s an affordable housing issue. If you don’t get on top of it, it’s going to get worse.”

While state and city officials look for ways to develop more affordable housing, Morishige’s office has been holding training sessions for organizations, including the state library system and Iolani Palace, on how to deal with homeless people on their properties.

The homeless are likely well known to social service outreach workers. Morishige and Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, said people can call their offices to get connected to outreach workers.

The ongoing training is aimed at “people who want to help but don’t know how,” Morishige said.

Behind the scenes, Hawaii officials, social service agencies, philanthropic organizations and others are meeting to try to make fundamental changes in the way they operate to better coordinate their efforts, Miller said.

Health care providers are regularly talking to Health Department officials to find ways to adjust Medicaid to help the homeless and simultaneously control health care costs.

And a so-called “funders collaborative” that includes the Hawaii Community Foundation and Aloha United Way since November has been looking at all of the homeless data “to align the funding that already exists so it can be more effective and efficient,” Morishige said.

A similar group of philanthropists in Los Angeles has “really driven action and brought new money and resources to the table,” Miller said. King County’s funders group “really has maximized investments. Everyone knows what each other is funding and setting priorities.”

Miller continues to visit the islands every few months, meeting with people across the state working to reduce homelessness.

Each time, she said, “We’re steps ahead. Groups are coming together and there is progress being made. There’s a lot more work to happen. … But all of the right work is happening now.”

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