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What Are We Doing to Fix Hawai‘i’s Homeless Crisis?

The Aloha State now has the highest number of homeless per capita in the nation. What are we doing to help the individuals and families living on the streets?


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In January, homeless service providers counted more than 400 people living in this encampment in Kaka‘ako, near the Children’s Discovery Center.
Photos: Odeelo Dayondon


April Fuiava was working at the front desk of a Waikīkī Hotel, her husband was a day laborer and the two were making tough calls just about every day. With seven kids, money was always tight. After the rent was paid—$2,000 for an apartment in ‘Ālewa Heights—there wasn’t much for anything else. Buy groceries or keep the lights on. Pay the vehicle registration or fill up the cars with gas. “Some days, we wouldn’t have food,” Fuiava says. But even though things were bad, things were never that bad, and the 36-year-old never imagined she’d end up where she did—her family homeless, living in a van and an SUV parked most days along Kapālama Canal.


It’s been a year since the Fuiavas moved onto the streets. Their landlord decided to sell, and they couldn’t afford to move into a new place. They thought living in their vehicles would be temporary, just until they saved up enough for a rental deposit. But weeks stretched into months. Fuiava lost her job because she couldn’t get to work on time. Her husband’s casual work also dried up and, for a while, they were living on the proceeds of his recycling only. He finally found a full-time job, earning just above minimum wage.


SEE ALSO: Photo Essay: What Do You Do When the Homeless Man on the Street is Your Father?


“We never thought this was going to happen to us. To be living like this is inhumane,” says Fuiava, standing outside of her van on a hot Saturday afternoon. The family is at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park, where Fuiava and her husband, Fuamete, are meeting up with a social service agency in hopes of getting help covering their vehicle registration and safety check. An illegal car on the streets is a liability the family can’t afford. While the parents wait, most of the kids have snatched up the chance to play in the park, but two of the little ones stay in the van for a nap.


The couple’s oldest is a 16-year-old boy; their youngest is 2. And there’s another one on the way. “My kids are like, when are we going to get a place?” Fuiava says. “Being homeless, it’s humbled me. I never pictured myself here.”


Left: Seifina Selifis, 38, poses with her two children, 7-year-old Asfin and 9-month-old Jalefin. The family has been on the streets since September,  struggling to save enough money for a place to rent. Seifina works the graveyard shift at a McDonald’s in Kāne‘ohe; her husband, MJ, works during the day at McKinley Car Wash and watches the kids at night.
Right: In January, a homeless encampment in Kaka‘ako was growing so large it felt like a small community. Kids rode bikes up and down the side streets; parents arrived home in the late afternoon and started to prepare dinner.


Hawai‘i is known for its beaches, its culture and, increasingly, its homeless crisis. Today, the state has the highest number of homeless per capita in the nation, with nearly 45 homeless for every 10,000 people, compared to 19 nationally. The situation has attracted national headlines and dominated the attention of local lawmakers.


The most visible response from local officials has been to take a hard line when it comes to the unsheltered homeless, moving them out of neighborhoods with new, specifically written laws in an approach Mayor Kirk Caldwell has dubbed “compassionate disruption.” In recent months, his administration has kicked up enforcement of a sit-lie ban for sidewalks and regularly conducted homeless sweeps to move encampments off public land. Critics of the approach say it makes it harder to help the homeless, whose ranks continue to grow.


Statewide in fiscal year 2014, nearly 14,300 Hawai‘i residents accessed homeless-shelter or outreach services, up 30 percent from 2007. Meanwhile, the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless counted in the state’s annual “point in time” survey has grown to nearly 7,000, up by about 14 percent since 2007.


Fortunately, “disrupting” the homeless isn’t the only strategy being pursued by local government. The state and city are partnering with homeless-service providers to roll out a system to triage the homeless population, getting help to those in greatest need; they’re also launching new programs aimed at getting the homeless into permanent housing quicker, and embarking on projects to build truly affordable housing, from micro-apartments to “tiny homes” and units built out of shipping containers. Will these tactics work?


Click on graphic to enlarge.
Source: Mental Health Kōkua


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Honolulu Magazine September 2020