Micronesians fill Hawaii shelters
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The number of Micronesians using the state's homeless shelter system soared by nearly three times between 2001 and 2006, and they now make up more than 20 percent of the state's total homeless shelter population — even though Micronesians represent little more than 1 percent of the state's population, a new study says.
At some shelters in 2006, Micronesians exceeded 50 percent of the total number of residents, the report states.
At the same time, the number of Native Hawaiians using the state's homeless shelter system plummeted by 24 percent, the report states. Native Hawaiians make up the largest homeless population in the state.
The report also said the number of Micronesians entering the shelter system exceeded the number of Hawaiians for the first time last year.
Advocates with the state's Micronesian community, shelter representatives and state officials said the reasons for the increase are a complicated mix. Factors include the allure of Hawai'i's healthcare system, high rents and federal statutes that give homeless people priority for a limited number of public housing units. Living in a shelter fulfills requirements that applicants prove they are homeless.
"We tend to look at the people as the problem," said Julia Estrella, a representative of Micronesians United. "But the root cause of the problem is lack of affordable housing for large families.
"Who can afford $2,000 per month, which is the going rate for a large family? You expect Micronesians to afford $2,000 per month when they're working at Jack In The Box or McDonald's for minimum wage?"
Micronesians United is an umbrella organization of Micronesian church and cultural groups.
Titled "Not-So-Silent Epidemic: The Rise in Shelter Utilization by Micronesians in Hawaii, 2001 to 2006," the new study — conducted by independent homeless services consultant Michael Ullman — concludes that Micronesians are utilizing a disproportionate share of the homeless shelter services as a way to get on the fast track into public housing. Ullman used data from the state's Homeless Management Information System.
He said he wrote the report to alert public officials to the problem and to urge them to re-evaluate the policy that gives homeless persons preference to public housing.
Until 1998, federal law mandated that homeless people be given first preference toward public housing. Now, states have the discretion to decide for themselves.
"The state cannot allow Micronesians to become an isolated new, underclass in Hawai'i," Ullman said. "While Micronesians should, of course, remain eligible for public housing, whether they absolutely need to use the homeless shelter system is debatable.
"Maybe we could eliminate the need for additional family shelters if we reviewed the policy."
Motivating immigrants to become homeless to get a higher priority into public housing is not a good strategy, he said.
Sandra Miyoshi, Homeless Program branch administrator for the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, said she's not surprised by the study's general conclusions.
Miyoshi said Micronesians generally arrive here with little money and no place to stay. They are motivated to find public housing and believe the way to achieve that is through the shelter system because of the preference policy.
So they flock to the shelters, she said.
"At our Waipahu Lighthouse Outreach shelter, we have about 80 people out of about 120 who sleep there at night, and then, during the day, when the shelter closes down, they go back to their relatives in public housing," Miyoshi said.
"And then they come back at night and sleep in the shelter."
The state is currently making a concerted effort to assist homeless people living on the beaches along the Wai'anae Coast, a high percentage of whom are Native Hawaiians.
In recent months the state has opened two emergency and transitional shelters on the coast — including the first round-the-clock emergency shelter.
"In my opinion, the decline in Hawaiians and the rise in Micronesians primarily exists at the downtown shelters — IHS and Next Step," said Kaulana Park, the state's homeless solutions coordinator on the Wai'anae Coast.
Park said the new report is preliminary, and doesn't include statistics from 2007 — a year in which the state has spent millions to stem the tide of homelessness on the Wai'anae Coast.
Danny Rescue, senior consul with the Federated States of Micronesia Consulate in Honolulu, said the growth of Micronesians in Hawai'i homeless shelters is merely a step toward greater assimilation of Micronesians in the Islands.
"Our community here is still relatively young," Rescue said. "These things can happen until they get better jobs and educated. Community-building, acculturation are all part of it."
Many homeless Micronesians come to Hawai'i for medical treatment they can't receive back home or are here visiting family members needing medical treatment, Rescue said. But many of them arrive with no means to pay Hawai'i's high housing costs.
The Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia, which was signed in 1982 and ratified in 1986, allows Micronesians relatively free movement into the United States.
Between 1996 and 2000, state and federal officials estimated the healthcare and education price tag to support Micronesians reached $86 million.
Micronesians can get Medquest that is funded by the state, as well as some cash assistance, Miyoshi said.
"The state has been amenable to helping the most economically vulnerable through various programs, including homeless shelters," she said.
The Rev. Ronald Fujiyoshi, of the Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries who has worked on Micronesian issues in Hawai'i, agreed that Micronesians enter homeless shelters here with the idea that it's a step toward public housing.
The state's healthcare system is also a draw, he said.
"Many of them have serious health problems because of the atomic tests (in Micronesia after World War II). There is no dialysis machine in Chuuk and only one in Pohnpei. So the place they're coming for their health- care is Hawai'i," Fujiyoshi said.
Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, which manages the Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, also said many Micronesians are in Hawai'i for medical care. More than two-thirds of the families in the shelter are from Micronesia.
"Some are coming for medical treatment," Porter said, "but a lot come to be with their families. It's family reunification."
"We need to talk to the leaders in the Micronesian community to include them in this discussion," Ullman said, "because the greater problem is potentially creating an underclass that's dependent on public housing and homeless shelters."