Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 76° Today's Paper

Editorial: At-risk youth must be taken off street

Hawaii has one of the highest rates of homeless youth in the U.S. — third highest in the nation, according to 2023 federal Department of Housing and Urban Development data, and this year’s numbers are higher than last year’s. With those data markers in mind, it’s evident that the state should support additional avenues to protect and shelter Hawaii’s at-risk children and teens.

If social service enterprises should be required to meet any “benchmark,” a crucial one is preventing youth homelessness and providing safe harbor for each and every youth who is at risk or has fallen victim to homelessness.

House Bill 470, which opens the door — literally — to safe harbor for youth in shelters as an alternative to foster home placement, provides one more option for minors who desperately need it. The bill was passed by the Legislature, and Gov. Josh Green should sign it.

Oahu’s 2024 Point in Time count showed that 647 youth under 18 were living without permanent, stable shelter. Of these, 115 were living unsheltered — on streets, in parks or on beaches. And 12 of the unsheltered counted were “unaccompanied minors,” completely on their own.

HB 470 recognizes that unaccompanied minors with no shelter face an emergency situation — a crisis scenario connected to mental and physical health concerns. These youths are left vulnerable to exploitation and sex trafficking, assault and recruitment into criminal enterprises, as well as permanent alienation from family and community.

The bill would allow vetted service providers to temporarily take in these minors without requiring consent from parents or guardians, and would shield groups providing shelter from liability for services.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state implemented a pilot program that did that, but legislation allowing it sunsetted in 2023. In the months since the law expired, organizations “have had to deny many minors shelter,” said state Rep. Adrian Tam, a HB 470 backer. “Youth homelessness has gone up because of that.”

Melissa Pavlicek, who supported HB 470 on behalf of the Opportunity Youth Action Hawaii hui — which includes Residential Youth Services &Empowerment (RYSE), the Partners in Development Foundation and Kina‘i Eha — told the Star-Advertiser that in some cases, minors from troubled homes who enter foster care have become homeless because they left foster care after encountering problems.

Without the legislation, Pavlicek said, “there is no real system for youth who show up at a shelter, other than to be turned over to the system. It’s very heartbreaking.”

RYSE, while an experienced shelter operator, does not hold foster care certification. Such certification includes safety and training requirements, and also qualifies an organization to receive federal funds supporting its services.

To distinguish organizations sanctioned under HB 470 from foster-care providers, HB 470 specifies that they provide “no cost” shelter that is considered “emergency” service, time-limited to 30-day stints.

HB 470 sets minimum standards for beds, meals, sanitation and services such as assistance to rejoin one’s family, health care or education. It also requires criminal history clearances, child abuse and neglect registry checks, and other background and employment checks for all service-provider employees and volunteers.

“A shelter versus homeless on the street? It’s a slam dunk,” as Hawaii’s homeless coordinator John Mizuno said.

Allowing qualified organizations to provide critically needed shelter for minors who are otherwise unprotected is the right thing to do, and service providers stand ready to help. HB 470 will take effect as soon as it receives the governor’s signature, and holds effect until June 30, 2029. There’s no time to waste in making it law.

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