Tent city: Hawaii ‘homeless’ efforts must be long term, for the right reasons

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

Imagine you’re in an ethics class, or playing a game of Scruples, and the question comes up: “Is it necessary for everyone to agree on the reasons for taking action if the action is something all see as desirable?” Now apply your answer to homelessness.

Since May, Hawaii’s 90-day first phase of a plan to end homelessness has been in effect and Marc Alexander, the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness, says it continues to be successful. At the 45 day mark—based on the latest numbers Alexander has—he says they have been able to house 125 people from the Waikiki and urban core.

“That’s significant because the point in time count for Waikiki for January, 2010 said there were 307 homeless, unsheltered persons in that area,” Alexander says. “In January of this year, the count was 235, so we’ve really made a dent into it. 20 of those would be considered vulnerable individuals. We know what works.”

There is no secret as to what works: More permanent affordable housing, more permanent support of housing for those who are chronically homeless, and job development. Alexander agrees the systems are in place, albeit not working to capacity, particularly concerning help for those who are mentally ill and homeless.

“We’ve been looking at the 1984 law on orders to treat, which really has never been fully implemented,” Alexander said. “We have been working with law enforcement, adult mental health, the psychiatric community, and the judiciary system to see how we can put that into better practice so we can help people help themselves when they cannot help themselves.”

The 90-day plan is due to sunset on August 15.

As the administration continues to work its strategy, others in government and the community have called for a ramp-up of efforts to help the homeless for one simple reason: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is three months away.

Rep. John Mizuno convened a meeting late last month to float the safe zones idea among lawmakers. He’s quite clear that APEC is his motivation to act quickly and says we’re late into the game to establish any sort of safe zone before APEC.

“At this point, a viable place would be a shelter we already we have,” Mizuno says. “Nothing precludes us from working on expansions of shelters we already have.”

Mizuno says members of the business community are identifying areas in which each is willing to help. Their common purpose is to show a good face to the world when Hawaii is showcased in November.

“We are inviting people to our home and we’re holding a meeting in our home and we’re not going to have our home in shambles,” Mizuno said. “We’re here to make sure our home looks good. We’re not looking for only a short term solution; we’re certainly looking for a long term solution. Why not do both?”

This has nothing to do with APEC. Our commitment to that is separate.

Alexander is adamant that although he can only speak on behalf of the State, “both the State and the City and County, we are all committed to ending to homelessness. This has nothing to do with APEC. Our commitment to that is separate. Our agenda toward homelessness is based on doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way.”

That’s the strategy that also works for Jun Yang, a young housing organizer with Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE). The statewide grassroots interfaith community-based organization of 29 institutions includes Protestant and Catholic churches, a Buddhist temple, a Jewish synagogue, a labor union, and tenant and community organizations. FACE works in concert with the Family Promise of Hawaii program to temporarily shelter groups of homeless families, defined as at least one parent and one child, in houses of worship for a week at a stretch to allow the family to save enough to get into an affordable housing unit. Fundamentally, Yang says, affordable housing is the root problem for these families.

“The community and stakeholders are getting together with businesses,” Yang says. “Finally, it’s not just someone else’s problem. Now it’s our problem. We have to deal with it collectively together. But what I’m most worried about is that these temporary measures, there is a lot of money going into them. The money that could go into the shelters could be used instead to be well invested in long term solution. It’s all coming from the same pot.”

The palpable subtext of his fear is that the collective motivation will be gone by December, when APEC will be over and the business community will be on to the next thing, drying up the pot of money funding the temporary help that has been offered to homeless. And that brings us back to the question of whether motivation matters.

The practical among us may see the necessity for bridging now with later, regardless of motivation. If we cannot take care of short term needs, from whoever is ready with the help now, the necessity for long term help may be moot. Neither has to be mutually exclusive; what is important is that short and long term efforts be well-coordinated to avoid redundant services.

Resources—money, donations, job training, and shelters—should also be utilized to their best and highest capacity for maximum impact on the lives of homeless people. If short term plans can be integrated to keep the focus on ending homelessness, and not just temporarily creating a pretty tourism snapshot, we just might have a good chance of success within a decade.

Haggling now about the correctness of why we help the homeless is fruitless. How we help them now, and how consistently we continue to help them when APEC is a memory, are far better queries.

For the complete conversation with Marc Alexander, John Mizuno, and Jun Yan, visit the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. To reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich, email her at [email protected]


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