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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Hawai'i coming to grips with homelessness

By David Shapiro

There are promising signs that 2006 will be the year Hawai'i finally makes a serious commitment to solving chronic homelessness in the Aloha State.

Gov. Linda Lingle has proposed that the state spend $20 million this year three times more than in 2005 to help repair private shelters and increase social services for the homeless.

If approved by the Legislature, the money will open urgently needed space for the estimated 6,000 Hawai'i residents who are homeless on any given day and fund programs to help the vulnerable before they become homeless.

Lawmakers have taken a punitive approach to homelessness in the past, but some, such as Sen. Gary Hooser of Kaua'i and Rep. Michael Kahikini of Nanakuli, are speaking out eloquently for more compassionate efforts.

The key will be whether the administration and Legislature can put their shoulders behind a common strategy instead of squandering energy on political cross purposes.

Ending homelessness has become a priority at all levels of government.

The Bush administration has made the issue a centerpiece of its philosophy of "compassionate conservatism," providing Ha-wai'i with grants of $5.6 million last year for homeless programs.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann has set his own initiatives in motion and has shown eagerness to coordinate with the state and federal governments on solutions.

Lingle and Hannemann are among 50 governors and 170 mayors who have embraced the Bush administration's goal of ending chronic homelessness in the United States within a decade.

It's a welcome change from two years ago, when Hawai'i was named the third meanest state for the homeless and Honolulu the ninth meanest city, mostly because of a law passed by the Legislature assessing severe penalties on homeless persons living on public property.

The momentum for addressing homelessness in new ways is fueled by several realizations:

  • With the commitment of reasonable resources, it is a problem that can be solved, not a civic blight that society must live with forever.

  • Housing the homeless and providing services to keep them from returning to the streets are far less expensive than continuing to pay the mounting costs of emergency shelters, medical care, business disruption, crime and incarceration associated with chronic homelessness.

  • Policies that rely primarily on rousting the homeless from parks, beaches and other public properties simply don't work.

    The homeless don't go away; they just go to even more dangerous places such as back alleys, storm drains, abandoned cars, remote trails and under freeway overpasses.

    After humane alternatives are in place, we can fairly crack down on those who refuse to leave public property.

    The Bush administration is focusing on the most visible among the chronically homeless individuals with underlying problems such as mental illness or addiction.

    These account for about a quarter of the nation's homeless and are best helped with stable housing and social services.

    But especially in Hawai'i, we must not forget the families with children, who are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

    These families fall victim to hard times and skyrocketing housing costs, and are best served by more affordable housing and better job training.

    Hurricanes Katrina and Rita nearly doubled the nation's homeless population overnight by displacing up to 600,000 households.

    The massive demands on the system forced cooperation among agencies and jurisdictions and out-of-the-box thinking, such as rental assistance vouchers and finding creative places to house large numbers of people.

    Our state and counties can work together with similar thinking to gain control of Hawai'i's homeless challenge and join places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Portland at the vanguard of this important battle.

    David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.