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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 13, 2006

Homeless could start new, communal life

By Maureen Fagan

Throwing money at the homeless problem in Hawai'i has not worked in the past, nor will it work in the future.

Governmental agencies and other well-meaning organizations use outmoded programs in the hope that the situation will be ameliorated. It won't. The Institute for Human Services, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and others are experts at triage and intake, yet long-term solutions are desperately needed.

We are reaching critical mass on O'ahu and unless a new approach to homelessness is employed, the economic strain on our limited resources will burst the economic bubble on which the state is currently riding. The recent earthquake is an example of the tenuousness of relying upon tourism for the bulk of our state revenue. What if it had been of Hurricane Katrina proportions, or worse? There would be no resources left to help those who would be in greatest need.

There are a number of existing models upon which we can draw. The Farmers Grange, a coalition of small farmers that was founded in 1867 to pool resources to fight against artificially low grain prices and to buy in bulk, also instituted the earliest form of the credit union to fight bank corruption.

The Israeli kibbutz, initially a farming cooperative designed to raise food for its members, has branched out into various manufacturing concerns, such as terrazzo floor tiles, medical equipment, glass and plastic products. There are more than 600 of these self-sustaining settlements throughout the country. Each generates ample revenue for food, shelter, clothing and extras such as furniture and cars.

Many of Japan's largest corporations foster living, working and playing (baseball teams, etc.) within the confines of the company venue.

The Hawaiian ahupua'a system was known to have provided food and shelter and ways to earn one's keep for all those who lived within the boundaries of each specific location. Plant cultivation, fishpond development and pooling of resources were methods of providing sustenance for large groups of people. Hawaiians, who comprise a large percentage of our homeless, are traditionally hui-oriented; the live-work-share principle is not new to the culture.

Using the proceeds of government and grant funding to build sustainable communities in which all homeless residents could live and work is a better proposition than throwing money into a growing and seemingly endless pit.

A number of sites for housing solutions were identified in August by the Wai'anae Coast Action Committee. Many of these have existing structures that could be renovated and/or modernized to accommodate large groups of homeless families and individuals, and have sufficient space for the installation of agriculture/manufacturing facilities.

A large percentage of our island's homeless are disenfranchised; the Wai'anae tent city provides for some of them their first sense of "belonging" in quite some time. What if vacant land at Kalaeloa, for example, were to be used for core live-work villages that actually produced something, such as specialty baked goods, income from industrial laundry facilities, the planting and harvesting of kenaf or fancy mushrooms for restaurants?

Hotels and restaurants have a vested interest in a program of this nature. The homeless would no longer have the need to beg in front of tourist establishments. The city, county and state would benefit through newly generated income and excise taxes and by no longer needing to apply an expensive Band-Aid solution to the problem. We would instead be providing the means for sustainable communities and thus a solution template for homelessness, both here and elsewhere in the world.

This project is a matter of state will. If it's true that the state is providing land for this need at $1 per acre, then matching funding should be readily available from federal and other grant sources. If we have a real desire to help the homeless among us, then we should consider the age-old maxim, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; give him a fishing pole and he will eat for the rest of his life."

Isn't it time we took a realistic, cost-effective approach to helping those among us who are in greatest need?

Maureen Fagan is a freelance writer and Ka'a'awa resident who previously directed a nonprofit for the homeless in Los Angeles. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.