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State Makes Progress in Helping Homeless But Experts Call For Larger Effort

Ashley Mizuo/HPR
State legislators and homelessness outreach leaders attend the Hawaii Homelessness Summit at the state Capiol on Jan. 7, 2020.

Hawaii is making progress in addressing homelessness, but hasn’t expanded existing programs enough to make a major dent in the problem, state lawmakers were told at a summit on the issue Tuesday.

Matthew Doherty, the former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and now a consultant on the issue, said Hawaii’s biggest issue will be scaling up its efforts.

“How do we create as many paths out of homelessness as we can and then how do we prevent the inflow into homelessness and hold our other systems accountable?” he said. “Until we take these efforts to scale, we can’t really judge the full effect of this. If you only help two people out of 20, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the right solution. It means you don’t have enough of the right solution.”

According to the annual Point in Time count of the homeless, 6,448 people experienced homelessness in the state in 2019. The number reflects a 18.6% decrease since 2016. 

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, credited two state programs for the reduction in homelessness: Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing. Both programs emphasize permanent housing over temporary shelters.

"We don’t eliminate homelessness unless we provide housing for people,” said Marc Alexander, the Mayor’s Office of Housing executive. He said the unsheltered homeless is a top priority as Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s term expires at the end of this year.

According to the city medical examiner, living on the streets can lead to an early death. In 2019 through Dec. 20, 104 unsheltered homeless individuals died on Oahu. In 2018, there were 90 such deaths.

The state approved Ohana Zone funding in 2018 that gave the counties resources to expand their efforts in reducing homelessness. Each county received millions to implement permanent housing solutions and temporary shelters.

On Oahu, the Ohana Zone projects include HONU — a mobile homeless shelter program that provides temporary shelter in inflatable tents and aims to move people into permanent housing. The first of the tents were placed in Waipahu Cultural Garden Park last month and housed 40 people. 

The program specifically targets unsheltered homeless. Because the tents are available 24/7, homeless outreach providers and police are able to help people find shelter late at night when traditional shelters are closed.

“If you’re not willing to provide that connection when they are willing to go, sometimes you lose that opportunity entirely,” Morishige said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green explained the need for his Kauhale project, a concept for communities made up of "tiny homes" that allow individuals to live in separate structures.

“If you want to get to chronically homeless individuals . . . you’re going to have to surge tiny villages or some form of that -- which in my opinion is what was envisioned as part of the Ohana Zone initiative from the outset,” he said.

Brandee Menino, chair of Bridging the Gap, a regional organization that helps the homeless on the neighbor islands, said 90% of people have remained housed for over two years on Kauai after moved off the street —the best results in the state.

But homeless advocates also said the solution to homelessness goes beyond housing. Alexander said all counties agree that the number one need is addressing behavioral health. 

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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