Can 'Housing First' help Hawaii's homeless crisis?

Governor David Ige has announced a state of emergency on homelessness and dedicated $1.3 million to building new housing. 

Cathy Bussewitz/ AP
Crews put the finishing touches on a housing unit for the homeless in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Governor has declared a state of emergency on homelessness in order to funnel funds towards providing temporary shelter to more of the state's homeless after a large encampment was cleared this month.

Compassion, kindness, and charity: that's the meaning of aloha. 

But some locals allege that the state's famous hospitality towards tourists, and toward the resorts that house them, has come at the expense of the state's most vulnerable. Will Governor David Ige's declaration of a state of emergency on homelessness, funneling $1.3 million toward housing, turn the tide for Hawaii's homeless?

On Friday, Governor Ige announced a new initiative to combat the state's homelessness problem, which has rapidly grown to be the worst in the country. Roughly 7,000 people in Hawaii are homeless. This figure may sound small compared to California's more than 100,000 or New York's 80,000, but Hawaii's population is only about 1.36 million, meaning that the Aloha State has the nation's most homeless residents per capita.

And it's been getting worse, especially for families: The Governor's Coordinator on Homelessness, Scott Morishige, told the Associated Press that, as homelessness increased by 23 percent between 2014 and 2015, the number of unsheltered families almost doubled.

The Governor's emergency funding will go primarily toward constructing temporary housing for families, as well as to new shelters made of shipping containers. 

The announcement came just two weeks after a controversial clear-out of one of the country's largest homeless encampments, in Kakaako, Honolulu, where hundreds of people lived in tents amid Waikiki's tourist scene — a sweep the ACLU unsuccessfully tried to block

At Friday's news conference, Ige defended the sweep, saying that more than half of the Kakaako camp's residents had been provided housing. They are "in a better situation where we are in a position to provide them services that will help us move then permanently out of the state of homelessness," he said. 

But opponents say it was only the latest 'fix' to prioritize tourism over locals.

In 2014, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed so-called "compassionate disruption" into law: anyone sitting on the sidewalk in busy commercial districts between 5 AM and 11 PM could be fined $1000 or serve a month in jail. Mr. Caldwell argued that the law would encourage homeless people to find help, and began work on a temporary open-air shelter on the site of a former Japanese-American internment camp, but the plan was scrapped out of safety concerns. 

"We want to make sure that homeless people understand we’re not going to let them take over Waikiki’s public spaces," Rick Egged, President of the Waikiki Improvement Association, told Al Jazeera

State Representative Tom Brower made headlines in 2013 when he took a sledgehammer to homeless people's carts and aggressively told daytime nappers to get going. Mr. Brower was sent to the hospital this past June after he was allegedly beaten up by a group of homeless men who, according to reports, said Brower ignored their requests not to videotape them. 

But there may be hope that Ige's emergency plans will benefit the homeless just as much as anxious business owners. Under Housing First programs, which have been adopted nation-wide and may have helped reduce homelessness by 17 percent, there is no requirement to seek treatment for conditions like addiction or mental health before 'earning' shelter. A roof over one's head, according to the program's philosophy, is the launch pad, not the reward, for making progress. 

The Economist reports that Los Angeles saved $27,000 for every person in such a program, suggesting that the Aloha State's taxpayers may be willing to offer the governor's initiative a warm welcome.

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