By now, most of Hawaii has accepted what all the experts say is true — that the homeless population has diverse needs, complicating the pursuit of solutions. But rather than allowing paralysis to set in as officials debate the ideal way forward, the best strategy is to come at the problem from multiple directions.
There’s nothing new about this view, but there is some hope that the state — especially on Oahu, where the crisis is most acute — is poised now to accelerate the pace of progress.
Success depends on attacking the problem relentlessly; the public perception that this crisis is not yet in hand, is the correct one.
The chronically homeless are among its most visible sectors. Finding various ways of improving their condition will benefit the wider public in unexpected ways.
At the state Capitol, the coming weeks will be telling. For example, Senate Bill 1131, which would provide more funding for a stop-gap housing solution known as “ohana zones” is still moving through the Legislature.
And it should become clearer how much funding will be devoted to the mission of adding to the stock of rental units that, along with supportive services, can move people off the streets. Providing permanent housing has been the goal of Gov. David Ige, who asserts correctly that this is the proven method.
But that doesn’t mean other strategies can’t be employed to whittle away at the edges — possibly readying more people for that more permanent solution.
It may help that Lt. Gov. Josh Green has taken on the plight of the chronically homeless as his particular focus. He is only a few months into this challenge, but he does come with the advantage of a professional background as an emergency medicine physician.
These are largely the people who live unsheltered, on the street, a group that, on Oahu jumped in size by 12%, according to the 2019 Point in Time Count.
The expanding encampments on sidewalks and in hidden, off-road places comprised the dark spot in the 2019 report that was part of the yearly national homelessness census, although the total population, including those in emergency shelters, dropped by 4% on Oahu.
Statewide, the Point in Time tallies ranged widely. Kauai’s count was up by 51%, undoubtedly an artifact of the devastating 2018 floods, experts said. There was better news from Maui with a 1% drop, and a startling 21% decrease on Hawaii island. Perhaps the focused attention on those left unhoused by the 2018 eruption in Puna paid some dividends.
That’s the sort of focus that should be employed on Hawaii’s most populous island, too. In a meeting last week with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial board, the lieutenant governor detailed his 10-point plan for the chronically homeless. Among these points are the ohana zones funding, which he sees as the means to provide infrastructure on state land where the homeless could live, at least for the short term.
But the strength of this blueprint lay in the variations on the theme: moving the chronically homeless toward stability. In lieu of “tent cities,” largely disparaged by the social-service sector, is the “kauhale” model of community.
This “place of social respite” collects dwellings around communal spaces, and could qualify for the ohana-zoning funds if they are authorized, Green said. It also would be eligible for federal funds as permanent housing units.
Even better, it could be uniquely suited to Hawaii’s culture. Like Kahauiki Village, the kauhale resembles the close-knit plantation villages of a century ago; and like the year-old Kauhale Kamaile in Waianae, it fits the Native Hawaiian sensibility for communal living. Green said the next such community could go up fairly quickly, in Waimanalo.
These would be best for families and others who are managing any persistent problems of substance abuse, mental illness or other health problems. Before reaching this point, though, there can be waystations.
An important addition was the creation of Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui, a facility in Iwilei that combines hygiene, short- and longer-term health treatments and housing. Additionally, plans are underway to open new Joint Outreach Centers, which are primary-care clinics, in addition to the one in Chinatown.
The Honolulu Police Department notion of “lift zones,” equipped with non-permanent, inflatable shelter units with social services, should be pilot-tested to provide police-monitored space for those unwilling to enter conventional shelters.
Other services aimed at those whose health is deteriorating from life on the street could offer interventions that would save big money, in the long term, over the frequent hospital visits by the chronically homeless.
There is a long game to be played in the rehousing of the homeless, but there are short-term actions that, as Green rightly notes, can be valuable, too. The state, city and nonprofits together should commit to such approaches, which would signal completion of Step 1 in his plan: “Understanding the Problem.”