Three paychecks away from homelessness
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Will Hoover
The number of people in Hawai'i in danger of joining the ranks of the homeless has soared the past three years, reversing a significant improvement recorded in 2003.
According to a new state study released yesterday, 26 percent of O'ahu's population stands at the threshold of homelessness.
While that's below the levels recorded in 1992 and 1997, the group has swelled by 30 percent, or nearly 54,000 people, in the last three years.
To Pua Gomes, parent coordinator at Kamaile Elementary School on the front lines of the Wai'anae Coast homeless crisis, the increase is an ominous sign. She has seen the tents that line 16 miles of beach in Leeward O'ahu and deals every day with the homeless as well as those on the brink — sometimes living a half-dozen or more families to a home and still barely getting by.
"These are not isolated incidences," Gomes said. "There are hundreds of families living like this along the whole coastline."
Many of them are a single problem — an eviction, heart attack or job loss — away from joining those struggling to eke out an existence on the beach, she said.
Experts fear that the increase, coupled with the highest rents in the nation and lagging wages and benefits, could lead to more people without a roof over their heads, aggravating what has become one of the state's most pressing social issues.
"We really don't understand the scope and potential of it," said Joel Fischer, professor with the University of Hawai'i's School of Social Work.
But the homeless situation could get worse before it gets better, he said.
"It's a crisis — but it's also a looming crisis," he said.
Paul Brewbaker, Bank of Hawaii's chief economist, said the new report illustrates Hawai'i's economic boom-and- bust cycles that all too often spell missed opportunities. Residents don't buy homes when the buying is good; policymakers don't accommodate adequate housing production when they can and should.
"The story is this: Shame on us, it's happened again and we wake up like Rip Van Winkle and find that the number of people at risk has gone up," Brewbaker said.
The Housing Policy Study 2006 is the most comprehensive survey to date on "hidden homeless" and those "at risk for homelessness" in Hawai'i.
"The report points out that we're measuring what people's personal perceptions are," said Sandra Miyoshi, homeless branch administrator for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. The agency oversees the state's homeless services program and commissioned the study. "So, in 2006 it seems as if they're less secure about their housing situation than they were in 2003."
It comes as the state is in the midst of launching new homeless shelters to address the immediate crisis and looking for ways to increase the number of affordable rentals on O'ahu to address the issue long term.
The report defines hidden homeless as households in which more than one family share accommodations. At risk or "precariously housed" individuals are defined as those living three monthly paychecks away from homelessness.
The report lists the estimated number of hidden homeless on O'ahu at 64,141, and at-risk persons at 169,883. Combined, the numbers comprise 234,024 of O'ahu's total 907,883 population.
As Hawai'i's major population center, Honolulu accounts for the bulk of the state's homeless problem. But the other counties have a total of 112,929 people considered hidden homeless or at risk for homelessness, according to the report.
For people on O'ahu's economically disadvantaged Wai'anae Coast, the struggle with skyrocketing rents has been catastrophic and has led to a dramatic increase in the region's hidden homeless population, according to those close to the situation. It is from this hidden homeless population that a majority of the area's 16 miles of visible homeless people are thought to have come, beginning in 2003.
Kamaile Elementary School has one of the coast's highest concentrations of students from low-income families. As a result, Gomes, the school's parent coordinator, routinely deals with the area's hidden homeless families.
Three or four years ago families that now make up that group were paying $300 to $600 a month rent, she said. Today, they face rents of $1,600 to $2,500 a month in an area where the median household income is $42,000. And those who have jobs often try to scrape by on little more than minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.
Gomes described one multi-family dwelling she's familiar with as typical:
Six families — 20 people — live under one roof, with each of three bedrooms becoming a "home" for one family. Two families share each half of a divided living room, with the sixth family huddled in a small day room.
Everyone tries to contribute to the money pool, with the top priority being the rent, she said. What's left goes for utilities, food, clothes, supplies and other necessary expenses. Often, the money runs out first.
"They cannot meet their bills, so they're always trying to find the money to pay one bill they didn't get paid the month before and they're sacrificing," Gomes said.
Gomes, who works full time at the school, said she falls into the at-risk category.
"With the rising costs, I can only imagine myself being homeless in the future," she said. "It's like sacrificing one thing for another every month. If I was to pay everything off I'd be one paycheck or two away from being homeless, too."
She's not alone.
"In a way, we're all one paycheck away from being homeless," said area businessman Victor Rapoza, 60.
He blames Mainland speculators for much of the coast's economic nightmare.
"Right now the situation is out of hand. You have people who come in and speculate on three, four, five homes. That drives rents up and increases home prices."
RENT CONTROL FAVORED
To stop speculation, Rapoza favors rent control. So does Fischer.
"Rent control is a way we get a handle on these escalating rental prices, at least on O'ahu — where landlords are just gouging, gouging, gouging and getting whatever they can, no matter the circumstances of our lowest income people," Fischer said.
Fischer also favors more smaller homeless shelters, additional services to help homeless persons enter the mainstream, stepped-up government support for those making the transition, and increased and better public housing.
Brewbaker said the new report reflects "problems that occur when home prices move upward abruptly," such as happened in Hawai'i beginning in 2002 — doubling in five years on O'ahu — and demand outstrips supply.
He said if the number of unsheltered homeless hasn't peaked already, it will within the next year or two.
"We all are going to have to pull together to deal with the actual homeless on the beaches," he said. "That's going to cost everybody."
Reach Will Hoover at firstname.lastname@example.org.