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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, October 18, 2004

'Cheap housing' vital to ending plight

 •  What the mayoral candidates would do to end homelessness on O'ahu

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Henry Enos lay on a weathered tatami mat in the middle of 'A'ala Park last week and offered a two-word solution to the problem of O'ahu's growing homeless population.

Ham Ham and his wife, Joan Fumuo, and their 5-month-old baby Shanna Abed Ham and three other children live at the Iwilei shelter.

jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Cheap housing," Enos said just before plopping his head back into the crook of his arm.

It's a simple idea for a complex problem. But homeless advocates say that increasing the number of affordable units lies at the core of reducing Honolulu's homeless population, which grew 83 percent from 1999 to 2003 — to 3,297 people.

Homeless advocates say they hope that whoever is elected mayor in November will find a way to shrink the plight of homeless people like Ham Ham and Joan Fumuo and their four children, who range in age from 5 months to 4 years old.

"They came from Micronesia to try and get a better start and make a better life for their children," said Dayna Mortensen, the social services supervisor for the Institute for Human Services' women and family shelters. "Their English is limited and dad struggled to get jobs. They bunked from family to family as long as they could before coming to the shelter in March."

They stay in the same dormitory-style room as Elery Santa, who has been living at the IHS with her husband and their two sons since Jan. 19.

Elery and Lover Santa's family of four shares two single beds pushed together at the Institute for Human Services shelter.

jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The family shelter in Iwilei has room for 23 to 25 families and there's a waiting list every night of 60 to 70 families who can't get in.

So Elery, 57, considers herself among the lucky ones.

She and her husband and their two growing teenagers all sleep on the same bed — two singles that have been pushed together. At night, Elery, the smallest member of the family, gets shoved aside by her husband and sons.

Their bed lies inches from other families' beds, which all sit exposed to one another.

Her husband, Lover Santa, 53, hails from Micronesia and is trained as a certified nurse's aide. Even though there's a huge demand for healthcare workers in Hawai'i, Lover Santa said the salary does not help him and his family as they struggle in Honolulu's expensive rental market.

"We cannot afford to pay the rent when it keeps going up, up, up," he said.

"We just need to find a place that we can afford," said Elery with a sigh.

Local homeless advocates have met with the two men who want to be Honolulu's next mayor and believe that both Mufi Hannemann and Duke Bainum are sincere about finding new ways to reduce the number of homeless people in Honolulu's parks, beaches and overflowing homeless shelter.

Both candidates said that easing Honolulu's homeless problem will be a major priority of their administrations.

"There's been a real lack of leadership by government in this field," Hannemann said. "Only of late have people been stepping up. My feeling is that we've been neglecting it for far too long. When you come from an area like Kalihi, like I do, you tend to be more sensitive to these issues."

At nearly every community function he attends, Bainum said he's asked what he'll do about the homeless.

"We're in almost our third decade of this being a major issue in Honolulu," Bainum said. "These are human beings that we must treat with compassion ... on an emotional level, on a human level, on an economic level and as a societal level, we must not drop the ball."

Bainum and Hannemann have heard a long and sometimes varied list of things that homeless advocates want their new mayor to do. Those include relaxing enforcement of laws that make it illegal to sleep in cars, beaches and parks; stop selling city-owned, affordable units, or at least sell them to organizations that will ensure they go to low-income residents. Also, consider tax breaks or other incentives for landlords to rent to low-income tenants; encourage communities all over O'ahu to make room for homeless people, which advocates say would prompt greater awareness of the problem and perhaps lead to more solutions; use the power of the mayor's office to better coordinate the variety of public and nonprofit homeless services; offer the expertise of city officials to nonprofit agencies to help them apply for federal grants; and listen to rank-and-file city officials who have been working for years on the problem before creating new policies.

"We don't necessarily need to repeal laws like the one that makes it illegal to sleep in cars," said homeless advocate Laura E. Thielen "But there's nowhere to send them. The shelters are full and there isn't enough affordable housing."

So Thielen and other homeless advocates believe that nothing is more important than increasing the number of affordable homes.

"We have to stop chasing the homeless around the island and work on the No. 1 issue, which is more housing," said Darlene Hein, chairwoman for Partners In Care, a coalition of homeless providers and organizations. "The city for too long has kind of turned a blind eye to the situation."

Failing to add inexpensive housing will only exacerbate the problem, said Sandra Miyoshi, homeless program administrator for the Housing and Community Development Corp. of Hawai'i.

"We need to up the inventory of affordable housing," Miyoshi said. "Without that, we're dooming our homeless to move from a homeless shelter into unaffordable housing, which means it won't be very long before they're homeless again."

Homeless advocates don't want the city building affordable units. "They're wisely out of that business," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Homeless Solutions Inc.

But advocates hope that the next mayor signs off on a 10-year-plan to end chronic homelessness, similar to one signed by 39 other municipalities.

Hawai'i's plan outlines a series of goals, including creating more affordable housing, providing limited housing subsidies, increasing the number of outreach workers, streamlining government services and doing a better job of gathering research to identify gaps in the system and homeless people's needs.

The mayor's signature on the plan would make Honolulu eligible for millions of dollars of federal housing money that could lead to new housing, or at least pay for renovating currently unlivable units, Miyoshi said.

"We have so many potentially wonderful units out there that just need to be repaired so they can be used by families," Miyoshi said. "If the county could step up to the plate and say, 'Maybe we don't develop housing anymore but we can certainly put our resources toward renovating existing housing,' that would be wonderful."

Lynn Maunakea, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, the only homeless shelter on O'ahu, is frustrated that Honolulu hasn't gotten its plan approved in order to tap into more federal funds.

"We just can't get this darned thing signed," she said. "There's nothing in it that commits the city to do anything. It just says that housing should be developed and it doesn't tie up city resources or money."

Both Bainum and Hannemann said they're committed to signing the plan.

"It will be one of the first things I do," Bainum said. "That's a must. I've been in government for 15 years and for the first time everyone — agencies, non-profits, churches and government — are coming together on the same page."

Hannemann called signing the plan "the No. 1 priority. Without it, you don't get the full benefits of federal funding. I've heard various figures on how much is out there, but the important thing is to make sure that we're fully eligible. If Philadelphia's getting it and San Francisco's getting it, we certainly should get it, too."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8085.

• • •

What the mayoral candidates would do to end homelessness on O'ahu

Duke Bainum

"At the end of the day, the people of Honolulu will be judged by their compassion to the needy," Bainum said. "... A city is always judged by the compassion that it treats its less fortunate members.

"Three of four years ago, I would not have been overly optimistic. But recent studies on the Mainland show that significant progress can be made. For the first time we're seeing the federal government and state government and, finally, the city government and nonprofits all coming together on the same page and that hasn't happened before."

The city should not be in the business of developing market-priced housing, Bainum said. Instead, Bainum would:

Sign the homeless coalition's 10-year plan.

Reorganize city housing departments and create a housing liaison to work with the homeless coalition. Following a 2000 conviction stemming from the city's 'Ewa Villages housing scandal, housing officials were dispersed throughout various city agencies. "Looking back, that was a mistake," Bainum said. "I have identified three or four departments I want to reorganize and bring together all of the people related to housing issues."

Work with nonprofit organizations to leverage federal funds.

Identify underdeveloped properties or areas needing revitalization in Honolulu's urban core and provide developers with tax and other incentives to develop them.

Make it easier for developers and contractors to build homes by streamlining and improving the permitting process and assisting with zoning changes, if necessary. "We can do a lot of things to speed up the process and make it easier for developers to do their projects faster," Bainum said.

Mufi Hannemann

A homeless man in Ala Moana Park confronted Hannemann one day and asked if the city could set up an area in the park dedicated for homeless people. "Obviously we can't do that," Hannemann said. "But they don't really have an alternative place to go."

Instead, Hannemann wants to:

Sign the homeless coalition's 10-year plan to end homelessness, which would make Honolulu eligible for millions of dollars of federal housing money.

Aggressively pursue federal money to increase the number of low-income units. "We need to go after every penny. We need to search high and low for whatever we're eligible for. ... I know Washington very well. (Hannemann was a former Congressional aide). I know how to get federal grants. That's going to be a big part of my administration. I'm going to take a page from (former New York Mayor) Rudy Giuliani and (former San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown to take advantage of every grant."

Cooperate with state officials on Gov. Linda Lingle's plan to build more affordable units. "The city can help by expediting the permitting process to allow private developers to make it happen," Hannemann said. "I pledge to support that 100 percent."

Put affordable units all over the island, known as "scattered-site" housing. "Homelessness exists throughout O'ahu and it's wrong for any one area, like Wai'anae, to be singled out," Hannemann said. "We all have to share in it and get beyond NIMBYism. Let's have everyone understand the problem and get educated."

Show compassion in enforcing city regulations that affect the homeless. "I really question how aggressive we should be," Hannemann said. "These people simply have no place to go."