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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 16, 2003

Calls for action increase as homeless problem worsens

 •  Focus put on homeless problem
 •  Editorial: Housing First can work for Hawai'i
 •  Chart: How many homeless?
 •  Five ways to help the homeless and five myths about the homeless

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Despite more than $39 million spent to fight homelessness in Hawai'i during the past two years, the problem has worsened dramatically, overwhelming social-service agencies across the state and threatening to put numbers at an all-time high.

Suzanne Leha Talo holds her daughter, Tiare, 2, in the family dorm room at the Institute for Human Services shelter on Kaaahi Street. Talo moved into the dorm three months ago with her boyfriend and two children. Tiare was once taken from her family by state Child Protective Services and has been afraid of strangers ever since.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Homelessness experts say government has been slow to act and that decision-makers do not realize how drastic the situation has become.

"If the mayor or the governor want something, it gets done," said Lynn Maunakea, executive director at the Institute for Human Services. "It is just not on their radar screen."

City and state officials say a fledgling federally supported plan to end homelessness in 10 years is working, but that it will take time — and that indeed the problem may get worse before it gets better.

But Maunakea and others say "worse" is already here, and more needs to be done now to help people who have nowhere else to turn.

  • The number of people living in Hawai'i's public parks, beaches and streets has increased by 61 percent in the past three years. In 2000, about 3,100 homeless people in Hawai'i were left to fend for themselves on any given night. This year, that has jumped to 5,000 people — the highest ever in Hawai'i — according to a state report on homeless numbers due this week.
  • In another common measure of need, the number of times homeless individuals made contact with outreach workers tripled from 2002 to 2003, from 33,303 contacts to 98,871.

Outreach experts say both indicate a more serious increase in homelessness than do overall state figures, which, based on the number of people seeking help, show that homelessness was up nearly 7 percent during fiscal 2003 (the latest year available), or 12,091 people versus 11,275 the previous year. Both are well below the peak of 12,923 reported in fiscal 2001.

Even at last year's conservative estimate, the number of homeless in Hawai'i exceeds the combined population of Moloka'i and Lana'i. That's about the same as the national rate of 1 percent.

Signs of the increase in Hawai'i abound.

  • On O'ahu, the homeless have been removed from areas that had become their domain in recent years, forcing them into neighborhoods such as Mo'ili'ili, where they live in empty lots and parking garages, or to places such as Queen Ka'ahumanu Elementary School, where they crawl under portable classrooms to sleep. Shelters turn away people nearly every night.
  • In Wailuku, Maui, the waiting list at the Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center has gone from a typical level of 12 to 24 families to 106. And in Hilo, Hawai'i, the 52-bed Kihei Pua Emergency Shelter is constantly full, with about half of the occupants children and an estimated 20 families a month placed on a waiting list because there is no room for them.

"We are seeing more homeless everywhere," said Maunakea. "It is true of the country in general. It has to do with the widening disparity between the haves and the have nots."

As a result, a long-simmering social issue that had changed little in a decade has vaulted into new prominence in Hawai'i, bringing many residents face to face with the problem and generating concern over the plight of the less fortunate as well as alarm over the implications for neighborhoods and businesses.

• • •

"You have to do a lot of things to survive. If you got to steal, you steal. Or beg or whatever." — Douglas Sorich, 48, a homeless veteran and former methadone addict who has lived in Hawai'i for eight months since moving from Phoenix.

Lack of affordable housing

Douglas Sorich, a homeless veteran who has lived in Hawai'i for nine months, eats a curry stew lunch at the Institute for Human Services men's shelter on Sumner Street. Sorich says there are several places that provide free food if you know where to go, but they all serve rice. He prefers potatoes.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Experts blame the recent increase in homelessness on the prolonged down economy and a loss of jobs since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but several other factors also loom large: decades of not building affordable housing, the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which limited families to five years of welfare benefits, and the lack of a "safety net" to provide support services for people on the verge of becoming homeless, such as drug addicts, the mentally ill and single parents.

"It is terrible," said Sandra Miyoshi, homeless programs section administrator of the state Housing and Community Development Corp. "We need to maintain the current programs and adapt some of them because we've got homeless numbers that have climbed dramatically."

But as homelessness has increased, government spending to combat the problem has fallen.

Government spending on homeless support services in Hawai'i have averaged an estimated $53,000 a day over fiscal years 2003 and 2004, but both city and state money for such programs was cut this fiscal year.

The state is spending $4.5 million on homeless services this year, down from $6.5 million last year, and the city will provide $5.8 million, down from $6 million in 2002. The federal government is spending $10 million over two years for homeless services in Hawai'i through grants, housing programs and veterans services.

About 80 percent of the money goes directly to services rather than administration or fund-raising under the general provisions of most grants to homeless providers.

Separately, the city plans to spend $6 million next year to build a new homeless shelter and service center using federal money. If that plan comes to fruition, city spending would double.

More on the streets, less money to aid them

Estimated number of people left to fend for themselves on any given night in Hawai'i in 2000

Estimated number of people left to fend for themselves on any given night in Hawai'i this year

Individual contacts with homeless people by outreach workers in fiscal 2002

Individual contacts with homeless people by outreach workers in fiscal 2003

$6.5 million
Amount state spent on homeless services last fiscal year

$4.5 million
Amount state is spending on homeless services this fiscal year

Sources: State Housing and Development Corp.

City, state and federal officials last year joined forces with private providers toward the goal of ending homelessness in Hawai'i by 2012. Working under the umbrella Hawai'i Homeless Policy Academy, they seek to coordinate programs, apply for federal grants and build affordable housing.

But such long-range solutions do little to help people on the streets right now.

In the interim, the academy meets monthly to identify effective treatments and services and is conducting a Management Information System to track and analyze services provided to 50 homeless people with an eye toward eliminating duplication. They have applied for four federal grants to improve services, but none has been approved.

"We are making some progress," Miyoshi said. "The problem is we are dealing with the longer-term housing problem and that takes time. We are really making inroads and all of these things will be on line by next year."

City Managing Director Ben Lee said the city will soon release a request for proposals for its $6 million homeless shelter, which would be run by a nonprofit organization, and expects construction to begin next fall.

Still, completion of the center is at least 18 months away, said Lee.

"For something immediate, we can look at drop-in centers or expanding existing facilities, but it would be small numbers," Lee said. "If we do 500 people, it is scratching the surface, but it's a start."

Gov. Linda Lingle said homelessness is a critical issue that affects the quality of life for everyone in Hawai'i.

"There are several reasons for homelessness, ranging from mental illness to inability to afford market rents," Lingle said. "Searching for one fix-all remedy is unreasonable and ineffective. Instead, we must focus on developing and implementing several long-term, comprehensive solutions that will include collaboration and input from community organizations and state, county and federal governments. We are also looking at other needs that address some of the roots of homelessness such as creating higher paying jobs and job training opportunities."

Linda Chong, who once owned a restaurant on Kaua'i and became homeless after a messy divorce, picks out clothes from the free store at the Institute for Human Services so she can go out in public without looking haggard. The free store provides racks of donated clothing for homeless people.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Steve Ishigami, owner of Amity Auto Body Repair on South King Street, has seen the number of homeless in Mo'ili'ili increase steadily in the past few years. Every day people panhandle near the Star Market, search through rubbish cans and sleep on Mo'ili'ili Field.

"They sleep in cars, vans and in the park," Ishigami said.

Ishigami said the homeless are drawn to the area because they can wash at the park restroom, a transitional shelter is located nearby and they are not chased out of the park by police.

A group of about 15 homeless men and woman sat on the bleachers and in the scorekeepers booth at Mo'ili'ili Field recently as the Maryknoll School girl's softball team held a practice.

As the girls went through drills, some of the homeless washed each other with buckets of water, some slept on the ground and others talked to themselves as they walked aimlessly about.

Assistant coach Butch Tenn said when the school holds games at the field, the homeless move farther away and free up the bleachers for spectators.

The girls "reluctantly" use the restroom, Tenn said, but always go in groups of two or three.

Kay Suzuki, whose daughter plays on the varsity team, said she is not worried about safety on the field because the coaches keep a watch over the players.

Suzuki said it is important for her daughter to see how less fortunate people live and to have compassion. She has taken her daughter to help feed the homeless during Christmas Day events at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.

"I wanted her to see that these are people too," Suzuki said. "This is just part of life now."

• • •

"I saw the bottom for so long I didn't think I could pull myself up. I couldn't do it by myself and so I had to ask for help. That wasn't easy. I still cry a lot." — Linda Chong, 55, is what's called "dual diagnosed," with mental illness and substance-abuse problems. She is considered chronically homeless.

People turned away

Ophyna Kimiuo, a long-time IHS volunteer, sorts through donations left at the women's shelter. Once the items are sorted, homeless people can help themselves to whatever they need. Former clients often return for household items such as dishes and cups as they transition out of homelessness.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

While policy-makers work toward a long-term solution, the dozens of government and private agencies that struggle with the problems day in and day out are left to do the best they can on their own.

The Institute for Human Services, O'ahu's only emergency homeless shelter, provides beds and sleeping mats on the floor for about 375 homeless people every night, but is so crowded that people are turned away nearly every night.

Maunakea said the obvious answer to homelessness is providing homes, but affordable housing is just not available in Hawai'i's expensive and competitive market.

"We have to bite the bullet and come up with a way to design affordable housing." said Maunakea. "It may come to the point of something like a trailer park. On the Wai'anae side they are looking into the possibility of a tent city. We need to create something for them."

The tent city to house the homeless would be built on five acres of city land beside Wai'anae Boat Harbor under a plan created by a grassroots coalition trying to find a solution to one of the state's most serious homelessness problems.

But Camp Hope, modeled after similar projects in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, is being criticized by residents who say it would be a magnet for the homeless from around the island.

Lee, the city managing director, said the city has received no details on the Wai'anae proposal, but it would require City Council approval to use city land. Lee questioned whether a tent city is the best use of beachfront property and whether it might set a precedent for city parks.

"I am concerned about that because then you could have it at North Shore, Waimanalo, Kailua, Sandy Beach," Lee said. "We certainly are looking at any creative way to address the homeless in our city, but until I get some more details, it's a little too early to say if it is good, bad or indifferent."

On Kaua'i, churches, government agencies and private groups such as Kaua'i Economic Opportunity are working to find a location for the first emergency homeless shelter on that island.

County officials are trying to clear homeless individuals and families out of county parks, and have marshalled a range of agencies to try to assist those folks in finding alternate housing, but there are many obstacles.

One woman living in Hanama'ulu Beach Park recently said she is continually rejected for subsidized housing because the available homes are too small for her family. She has nine children.

On Maui, people are losing their welfare benefits at a rate of 10 to 20 families a month, said Charles Ridings, executive director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center in Wailuku.

"Unless something is done to address the issue of people losing their welfare, that is, to take steps to provide remedial education and job training while these people are still on welfare, I honestly don't think the situation is going to improve, because not a lot of housing is being developed to address the problem," Ridings said.

Service providers on the Big Island attributed their increase in homelessness to both welfare reform and a growing methamphetamine problem.

• • •

Suzanne Leha Talo lives in the IHS family shelter with her boyfriend and two children. The family wore out their welcome living with friends and family members. When asked where she wants to live, Talo said: "In a house. Anywhere. So our kids can run around."

New York program

Every day, the IHS serves about 1,000 free meals to homeless people. The dining room is so crowded at the men's shelter that many have to wait in long lines for a seat at a table to open up.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

New York City has perhaps the nation's best ongoing operation to end homelessness.

Sam Tsemberis, executive director of Pathways to Housing Inc. in New York City, visited Honolulu last month to discuss his program of getting chronic homeless off the streets and into apartments of their own with assistance from local care providers.

Tsemberis said most homeless programs require clients to participate in drug, job or counseling programs before being provided housing, but Pathways follows a "housing first" model that puts clients into homes before working on personal problems.

"We can put somebody in an apartment, pay 80 percent of the rent with government funding, and provide treatment for $5,000 per year cheaper than it cost to put them in a shelter cot," he said.

Landlords have learned to trust the program because the tenants are supported by the agency and they know the rent will be paid on time and any problems are dealt with by case workers.

"We can cure homelessness," he said. "There is a fix and we are doing it right now."

Locally, Health Care for the Homeless and IHS are running Shelter Plus Care housing first programs, but with a tight housing market, apartments are hard to find and landlords are wary of taking in homeless tenants with substance-abuse and mental-illness problems.

Laura E. Thielen of Health Care for the Homeless said 70 people have been added to the Shelter Plus Care waiting list in just the past two months.

"We can't house them," Thielen said. "That is what we should be looking at: more funding for Shelter Plus so we can house more people in homes right away."

Staff writers Christie Wilson, Kevin Dayton, and Jan Tenbruggencate contributed to this report. Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.

• • •

Five ways to help the homeless

1. Respect homeless people as individuals. Respond with kindness.

2. Make a donation to an organization that helps homeless people.

3. Urge faith-based or other organizations you are part of to donate space or resources to provide shelter or services to homeless people.

4. Volunteer your time to help homeless people as part of a community nonprofit organization.

5. Giving money to homeless people that beg is a personal choice. Some people have no problem with it while others believe giving money will only be used to buy alcohol or drugs and not food. As an alternative to feeling guilty for saying no, you can stop in a store and buy peanut butter crackers or juice and give that, or carry low-denomination gift certificates from various fast-food restaurants and hand them out.

Five myths about the homeless

1. People choose to be homeless. Nationally, 2.5 million to 3.5 million people are homeless every year and an estimated 500,000 low-income housing units are also lost each year. Private developers sometimes concentrate on lucrative housing and commercial projects and can destroy affordable housing in the process of urban renewal and gentrification.

2. Homeless people don't want to be helped. Recent studies show that even the severely disabled mentally ill, chronically homeless people will accept help with approaches and strategies appropriate to their circumstances. Homeless people's resistance to help is often their own attempt at some measure of self-dignity.

3. Homeless people are mostly able-bodied men who don't want to work. The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is families with young children. Other new homeless include battered wives and runaway and throwaway children.

4. Most of Hawai'i's homeless are shipped here from the Mainland. One survey from a major downtown homeless service provider shows that of 3,720 clients, 1,588 or 43 percent, have lived in Hawai'i for five years or more; 632 or 17 percent had lived here from one to five years; and 1,501 or 40 percent had lived here for less than a year.

5. Homeless people commit more crimes than other people do. The arrest rate for homeless people committing violent felonies is about one-half of those with homes. When crimes are committed by homeless people they are usually misdemeanors committed to secure food or a place to sleep.

Source: Partners in Care

• • •