Hawaii lawmakers seek immediate solutions to ‘chronic homelessness’

First-Hand Report
Travis Quezon

HONOLULU—Hawaii lawmakers sought immediate solutions for the state’s houseless population at an informational briefing held by the House Housing and Human Services committee today.

Representatives Rida Cabanilla, John Mizuno, Tom Brower, and Gene Ward focused on plans to create State-mandated “safe zones” as a place to relocate Hawaii’s houseless people and addressed what’s known as “chronic homelessness.”

A “chronic homeless” person by federal definition is “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” This definition has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The focus on Hawaii’s “chronic homeless” was intended to single out initiatives to specifically address what the State views as the most problematic category of houseless people.

“I think some of us legislators and some even in the public have looked at homelessness as one size fits all,” Ward said. “We have to differentiate the types. We’re talking about ‘chronic homeless’; those who are one paycheck away who want training, they don’t want to be homeless; and the ‘leave me alone’ homeless who [say] ‘don’t put your rules and your regulations and time, lights out, and that other stuff on me.’”

Ward said the Legislature’s “top-down” effort to combat houselessness has been ineffective and that plans need to start on the hyper-local levels.

“Everything that we’ve tried has cost money and has cost time and we still have not got a handle on this homeless situation,” Ward said.

State and federal officials presented their current strategies to the committee.

HUD planning director Mark Chandler said the federal government is focusing on the increase of “chronic homeless” singles in Hawaii, which has seen an increase over “chronic homeless” families.

Compared to families, “chronic homeless” singles often have more serious problems with mental health and addiction that make it more difficult to be placed into shelters.

Chandler said an effort in Wailuku, Maui called the “Waiale Road Project” has been able to successfully transition “chronic homeless” into shelters through a combination of assistance programs to meet different needs.

Russ Saito, director of the Hawaii Department of Human Services (DHS), spoke on behalf of State efforts.

“The key issue that you need to address here is the unsheltered, because they are the ones that are the concern of, I think, everyone,” Saito said. “Especially the buinesses.”

“Homeless” shelter capacity in Hawaii has doubled since 2006, according to DHS. Of the 5,800 houseless people counted in the most recent point-in-time survey, 3,500 are in shelters and 2,200 are unsheltered.

There are 1,374 unsheltered people on Oahu alone: 394 in the Downtown district (from Salt Lake to Piikoi), 307 in East Honolulu (from Piikoi to Hawaii Kai, including Waikiki), 76 from Ewa to Kapolei, 77 from Kaneohe to Waimanalo, 96 from Wahiawa to North Shore and Kahuku, 14 from Kahaluu to Kahuku, and 410 on the Waianae coast.

“A lot of the issues relate to the willingness [of houseless people] to move,” Saito told the committee. “So if you’re going to find them places to go, it [should] probably be close to where they already are.”

Saito said the State needs to focus on building affordable rental units. There are currently 6,100 federal and State public housing units in Hawaii and a waiting list of over 10,000 with the Public Housing Authority. Saito also said the State must to identify the services needed for individuals and integrate those services into the transitional housing process. The DHS director then urged the committee to ensure that the Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations are closely involved.

Cabanilla said that affordable housing was not part of the House committee’s immediate concerns because the process for creating housing can take years.

Adam Johnson, CEO of adult treatment center Hina Mauka, agreed that there needs to be a focus on treating addiction and mental health problems of the “chronic homeless.” Johnson explained to the committee that drug use compounds mental health issues because they are psychologically a short term solution for individuals. He said individuals with addiction and mental health problems find it difficult to participate in the State transitional housing process, which rewards only those who are motivated to follow through on long term responsibilities—even taking the first few steps in getting help.

Johnson suggested that the State do more outreach to individuals and have fully integrated services available in addition to housing. He said a living environment where people are all going through a recovery process creates a welcoming community; a therapeutic sense of place.

Despite the governor declaring “homelessness” a state emergency and efforts by government agencies to tackle the issue on a broader scale, the City and County of Honolulu continues to carry out sweeps of public parks and beaches without providing Hawaii’s houseless refugees a longterm, effective alternative. The City has planned a “homeless sweep” for campers at what is known as “Guardrails” along the Waianae Coast on July 19.

“I think that it’s inhumane to just take people out wherever they are at and not be able to offer them a place to go,” Cabanilla said at the beginning of the briefing.

The House committee will be scheduling a follow-up meeting within a month to focus on finding a location for the proposed “safe zone.”