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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 27, 2006

State may change its policy on homeless

 •  Special report: Homeless on the Wai'anae Coast

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

The state is considering changing a controversial policy that prevents homeless people living on the beach from getting top preference for hard-to-get public housing.

State regulations currently give the highest preference to, among other groups, homeless residents in transitional shelters. But those living on the beach, in cars or in other makeshift quarters generally are placed in the last of three preference categories, effectively ensuring their waits for affordable rentals will last years.

Hundreds of Hawai'i's homeless live on the beaches or in other spaces outdoors. Those who have tried to get into shelters usually have found that the facilities are filled to capacity and have months-long wait lists.

Linda Smith, senior policy advisor to Gov. Linda Lingle, yesterday said the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority board of directors in October approved a staff recommendation that the preference policy be amended, partly to help speed the process by which vacant public housing units are filled.

"Clearly, we understand the urgency of addressing this," said Smith, who is a board member.

The draft rules being developed currently say that homeless residents, regardless of where they live, will be placed in the top preference group as long as they comply with a social service plan, which involves taking classes or getting other life-skills assistance to help turn their lives around.


Under the existing policy, only the sheltered homeless are entitled to the top preference if they abide by a social service plan. Also qualifying for the top group are people involuntarily displaced from their homes and domestic-violence victims. That wouldn't change under the new rules.

The existing policy, which was the subject of an Advertiser story Sunday, has come under criticism by homeless advocates, social workers and others who say it unfairly penalizes the very people who need help the most.

But the proposed policy, if adopted by the housing board next month and put into place following a round of public hearings, would put all the homeless on equal footing for public housing, presuming they meet the other requirements. Their wait for housing would then be based mainly on when they got onto the wait list.

12,000 ON LIST

About 12,000 people in all three categories are on the list, and the average wait is three to six years. For those in the top preference group, the wait typically is one to two years, while those in the bottom category usually wait more than five years.

Advocates, social workers and homeless residents said the proposed change in the preference policy would be a step in the right direction, but they said they needed to know more details before they could fully endorse the change. Several also said the policy should include an exemption for those homeless residents who would be considered good candidates for public housing even without being on a plan, such as people holding full-time jobs who were pushed into homelessness by some economic upheaval.

"I'm not sure a one-size-fits-all approach to homeless preferences is the best way to get people into public housing," said Legal Aid of Hawai'i attorney John Robert Unruh, who represents a homeless client who has a full-time job and was placed in the bottom preference category.

Kanani Kaaiawahia Bulawan, executive director of Wai'anae Community Outreach, a nonprofit agency that provides services to the homeless, said the state should include a preference for the so-called hidden homeless who are crowded into homes of relatives or friends because they can't afford places of their own.

Smith, the governor's adviser, said the proposed policy will be presented to the board at its Jan. 18 meeting. If the board adopts the new regulations, a public hearing would be held on each of the four main islands. If no substantive changes are proposed, which would require another round of hearings, the new policy could take effect as soon as the end of February, Smith said.

Alice Greenwood, a homeless resident on the Wai'anae Coast, said the proposed change is a positive one but more needs to be done by the government to address the high cost of living and high rents that are forcing more families into homelessness.

"They can make all these new rules, all these policies," Greenwood said. "But it's not going to solve the overall problem."

Reach Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.