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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 6, 2006

A seven-step program to help homeless

By Michael Ullman

While legislators are falling over themselves trying to increase funding for homeless services, what has been left out of the conversation is whether these actions really constitute a new and more effective strategy.

Despite the numerous special task forces, including the meeting called by Gov. Linda Lingle, the problem of the same players with the same vested interests and the same fear-ridden biases continues to prevent Hawai'i from developing and implementing a more bold and strategic vision to immediately reduce homelessness.

New ideas reported from the Lingle forum seem like retreads from yesteryear. More drop-in centers, coordination of services, surplus supplies and emergency services is very same old, same old. While education and training are valuable, this, too, is a dead horse that no longer qualifies for the homeless derby held in emboldened cities.

The bottom line is that too much of the money pays for old-style shelter-to-grave services and fails to radically change the current failed system. Much of the country is moving beyond this broken formula, focusing all new resources on housing homeless individuals.

With a state surplus, this is the time for bolder action. Some steps take no money. Some take significant commitment. Specifically:

  • Stop with the "there are no places to house people who are homeless." Is there an affordable housing problem? Yes. Do thousands of people without much money come to the Islands each year and find housing? Yes.

    The homeless and those at risk need more resources to compete in the market. All current Shelter-plus Care projects are completely booked. The city's Section 8 program has remained completely utilized. Units can be found. Steal market share for the homeless, rather than sit around waiting five years for new facilities.

  • Since we know that units are available, fund flexible vouchers that can house homeless individuals and families right now. Section 8 and public housing are reduced to working off their attrition rates, which are pretty low less than 30 units per month, sometimes less.

    That ain't gonna cut it.

    A state-funded housing subsidy program would also allow Hawai'i to gain competence with a more flexible Section 8-like program that could have time limits and more strategic goals not a lifetime voucher. Two hundred vouchers can house 200 individuals/families within six to nine months. If that works, fund more next year. The cost for a three-year pilot program would be approximately $2 million per year ($10,000 per household per year).

  • With all the money in the rental housing trust fund, the problem will be spending the money in a timely way. Bundle some of it directly to Request For Proposals that have state or city land. Leverage isn't using one government fund to get another. Fund good projects from one pot with an appropriate public-sector contribution and save time, hassle and money. Encourage small ideas that can house people within 12 to 18 months, not only big five-year projects.

  • Trailer parks: If it's good enough for the university ...

  • Fund a supplement to the federal SSI payment that is tied to a rental payment through a representative payee service. The bottom line is $575 per month is not adequate support for a disabled adult. A $300 supplement for housing, giving the person a total of $875, can move a lot of people into housing. Target 100 chronically homeless unsheltered individuals in a pilot program.

  • Use eminent domain and convert some hostess bars into a couple of 30- to 40-unit rooming houses in various areas of the city, especially along Kapi'olani Boulevard. For many alcoholics and difficult-to-serve individuals, an adequate flophouse can be the right medicine. Get them a basic sheltered option that isn't a shelter. Review history and get realistic. Build it and they will come. And leave your middle-class values and housing aesthetics at home.

  • A real low-income rental housing tax deduction for non-homeowners. Homeowners typically build wealth off the backs of renters, lest you forget.

    These are just seven immediate, new and bold steps that the state should consider.

    Michael Ullman is a homeless services consultant and is ending his current term as vice chairman for planning for Partners in Care, the Oahu Homeless Coalition. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.