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Push is on to fund programs to prevent Hawaii’s homelessness

  • DENNIS ODA / APRIL 22
                                The tents of the homeless and their possessions line the sidewalk along Dillingham Boulevard near Costco.

    DENNIS ODA / APRIL 22

    The tents of the homeless and their possessions line the sidewalk along Dillingham Boulevard near Costco.

With the state Legislature re-starting on Monday, nonprofit organizations and the state’s homeless coordinator are warning about a surge in newly homeless families and the need to continue funding social service programs even as the economy shrinks.

From 9/11 to the 2008/2009 economic recession, cuts to social service programs — especially mental health services — resulted in more people becoming homeless in Hawaii, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.

After the current emergency government aid and prohibitions on rental evictions expire, the islands are likely to see a jump in homelessness six months to a year later that will last for years, Morishige said.

“It won’t be a one- or two-year spike,” he said. “We’re likely to see a steady increase over time.”

Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, said a new generation of homeless families and adults could be even larger than the surge following America’s housing collapse that triggered the Great Recession.

“We are still living with those (budget) decisions,” Thielen said. “And we’re seeing more folks becoming potentially homeless than during the 2008 recession.”

The state’s homeless budget of more than $25 million a year depends on the state’s general fund, which is driven by tax revenue.

Hawaii has been making progress on reducing homelessness since the recession, and the 2019 nationwide homeless census — called the Point in Time Count — saw Hawaii lose its distinction this January as the state with the highest per capita rate of homelessness.

Hawaii’s unusual level of cooperation in addressing homelessness between state and county officials — along with programs that pair social service outreach workers with Honolulu police and state sheriff’s deputies — has been praised by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Even during the new coronavirus pandemic, government officials and nonprofit groups continue to find new models to address homelessness, said Heather Lusk, executive director of the Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center.

The state’s first triage and quarantine center for homeless people that opened out of coronavirus concerns in Iwilei on April 1 evaluated 39 clients for exposure to coronavirus as of Friday. None tested positive, Lusk said.

While they received social service help as needed, Lusk said that 80% of the homeless people seen at the triage center have gotten off the street.

Some have moved into substance abuse treatment facilities to address some of the underlying reasons for their homelessness, Lusk said.

“They were able to stabilize,” she said.

And at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Hawaii Foodbank — which itself is scrambling to keep up with demand for food — is planning a “food drop” with the Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center for Kakaako homeless people at the corner of Keawe Street at Ala Moana Boulevard.

Organizers plan to distribute 250 meals, backpacks, blankets and masks. Social service outreach workers then will distribute the rest of the meals and items to other homeless encampments across Oahu, Lusk said.

At Catholic Charities Hawaii, the average number of calls since March 1 for help just from Oahu has lept from 800 to 1,200 per month, said Jillian Okamoto, Catholic Charities’ head of housing.

“It went up tremendously,” she said. “Ninety percent — probably more like 95% — of the calls are now related to housing, requesting rent or utility assistance. Before it was 70%. … There’s always more requests than money — if it was a normal time.”

Robert Van Tassell, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii, said, “The focus right now is keeping folks in their homes. Homeless prevention is a key thing.”

Two years following the 2018 dramatic eruption of Kilauea Volcano, “We’re still working with families and folks there,” Van Tassell said.

For those who will soon become homeless because of the coronavirus fallout, he said, “This will be a long journey. This is not going to be a quick fix. … It is definitely not a time to be cutting these costs.”

Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna, said people remain affected emotionally and physically from the eruption, including dislocated families.

For the current coronavirus crisis, Normann said, “We know that if they cut programs, homelessness is going to go up significantly and it’s going to be a drag on our economy and state for many, many months to come. When the fire starts is not the time to start cutting the fire department.”

A new complex of 32 8-foot-by-10-foot “micro units” went up last month near the Hilo airport intended for the neediest and most at-risk homeless people, such as kupuna and those with underlying health issues, Normann said.

The project was paid for by so-called Ohana Zone funding that the Legislature previously funded to create permanent housing for Hawaii’s homeless.

After Kilauea wiped out large swaths of Puna, Normann said, “There are still people trying to get back on their feet — people who have never experienced homelessness. People don’t realize that once you become homeless, everything is harder.”

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