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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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“Thinking differently”

The state’s Next Step shelter opened in 2006 as a temporary place to house homeless displaced when the city started closing Ala Moana Beach Park at night. It has no planned closure date.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon


In 2006, the state converted a Kaka‘ako Warehouse into a temporary emergency homeless shelter for some 200 people displaced when the city started closing Ala Moana Beach Park at night. The new shelter, called Next Step, was part of what would become an unprecedented expansion of the state’s homeless-services network. That expansion began in 2006 as part of a plan to end homelessness in Hawai‘i within a decade. The fact that the 200-bed Next Step not only remains open, but is at capacity, and that the state’s plan to end chronic homelessness by 2015 is rarely mentioned, speaks volumes about Hawai‘i’s current homeless crisis.


Ketsen Alafonso, 36, photographed near Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park with her 4-year-old daughter. Ketsen was living at Kūhiō Park Terrace, when she started falling behind in rent. Her job at Burger King didn’t cover all the expenses needed to take care of herself and her three children. The family got evicted in early 2014, couldn’t find a place at a homeless shelter and recently lost what little income they were getting when their welfare benefits ran out.

Growing the existing homeless-services network—adding more shelter beds, more outreach programs and more money—simply hasn’t worked. “Shelters serve a purpose, but the solution to homelessness is not to build more shelters. We learned that,” says Lori Tsuhako, administrator of the state’s Homeless Programs Office. “We have to start thinking differently.”


For homeless-service providers, advocates and policymakers, “thinking differently” has taken shape as a statewide effort aimed at streamlining the homeless-services pipeline—assessing individuals’ needs, getting them the right amount of support and moving them into housing more quickly. The new direction, formally adopted by the Hawai‘i Interagency Council on Homelessness, follows a national trend toward the so-called “housing first” approach, and bucks the conventional—and still pervasive—belief that homeless people placed too quickly in permanent housing (without tackling the financial, behavioral or substance-abuse issues that put them there) will fall right back out onto the streets.


But widespread changes to how homeless on the streets are helped are still years off and will require an expansion of Hawai‘i’s affordable-housing inventory. In the meantime, most homeless families and individuals continue to encounter an overwhelmed system of services whose pathways to housing have gotten longer and less defined. Shelters in the urban core have little or no space for new families. And once a family gets in, they often languish, unable—even with the shelter’s assistance—to find a rental cheap enough or a landlord who will take them.


On O‘ahu, the average stay for families in emergency shelters is 193 days, up from 113 in 2012, according to the University of Hawai‘i Center on the Family. The average stay in a transitional shelter is a year. And the safety nets for the poorest—public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers—are maxed out. With some 10,000 families on the waiting list, it can take up to a decade to get into a public-housing unit on O‘ahu.


With no other place to go, many have taken to finding safety in numbers, building encampments scattered across urban Honolulu. In Kaka‘ako alone in early January, service providers counted more than 400 homeless people in an encampment near the Children’s Discovery Center. Families and singles were living in tents and lean-tos, and new neighbors were coming in every day. On a weekday afternoon, the place felt like a community—kids were playing in the street, dogs were yapping at each other, parents were getting home and preparing to make dinner.


Keideen Helly, 3, plays with a friend in the tent she shares with her grandmother, Nina Kaneso.


Nina Kaneso, 59, has just bathed at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park with her 3-year-old granddaughter, and the two are sitting on lawn chairs outside their tarpaulin dwelling letting their hair dry in the sun. Kaneso is her granddaughter’s primary caregiver, and the pair previously lived with Kaneso’s brother and his family. When her brother lost his home two years ago, everyone was out on the streets.


Now, Kaneso and her granddaughter share a cot in their makeshift tent, built with tarps and held up by pieces of wood and furniture. Other relatives live in tents nearby. Kaneso’s tiny dwelling sits on the concrete sidewalk, and one wall is partially open to the elements. When it rains, everything gets wet. But Kaneso keeps the dwelling tidy—everything has a place. She can’t get her granddaughter off the streets, at least for now, so she focuses on filling the 3-year-old’s life with routine—chores, hygiene, meal times. “I live here. I have nowhere else to go,” Kaneso says, running a comb through her hair. “It’s hard out here. Everything is hard.”


Seifina Selifis uses that word—hard—to describe her family’s life on the streets. The 38-year-old lives in a two-person tent in Kaka‘ako with her husband, MJ, and their two children, 7-year-old Asfin and 9-month-old Jalefin. The couple has tried to make the best of things, hanging children’s blankets on a laundry line around their tent for privacy and laying down woven mats on the sidewalk to create a small kitchen and dining area outside their front door. But there’s no sugarcoating the situation: “This,” Seifina says, motioning to the street where they’ve set up camp, “I don’t like it.”


The family moved from Chuuk, Micronesia to Vancouver, Canada a year ago, where they stayed with family, then moved to Hawai‘i in September. They’ve struggled to get a foothold ever since; they couldn’t secure a spot at the state’s Next Step shelter and they’re on the waiting list for public housing. Seifina works the graveyard shift at a McDonald’s, MJ works at McKinley Car Wash. They’re trying to save for a house, but they’re not hopeful about finding anything soon.


Mike Ho, 34, photographed outside the tent where he lives in Kaka‘ako. He’s been homeless for three years.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

A few tents down, Mike Ho is fixing a motorbike—repairing things is his hobby-turned-cash maker. He also recycles cans and bottles. In November, the 34-year-old celebrated the birth of his infant son. The baby and his mother moved in temporarily with a friend, while Ho returned to reality—eking out a life on the streets. Ho, who has been homeless for three years, lives with his family in a large pop-up tent. He lost his job working security about a year ago, then lost his identification during a homeless sweep, when city crews move through encampments and dump unattended belongings. Getting a new ID without any other supporting documents is about as hard as you’d imagine, Ho says. Getting a job without ID is just as tough. “I’ve been trying to save money to get a place,” Ho says. “We do what we can.”


Policymakers and providers say their new housing-first approach won’t solve homelessness on its own. There will need to be broad and sustained work to expand the affordable-housing inventory. At the same time, big questions about the approach remain, not least of which is how a program that has so far primarily focused on moving chronically homeless individuals with significant mental-health or substance-abuse issues into housing can also meet the needs of families who don’t require intensive supports, but also have no clear path out of homelessness.


Scott Murashige, executive director of PHOCUSED (Protecting Hawai‘i’s ‘Ohana, Children, Underserved, Elderly and Disabled), a coalition of human-service organizations, says housing first will need to demonstrate it can work for all sorts of homeless people, not just the chronically homeless. “We’re building a really good coordinated system for the chronically homeless,” he says. “I think the challenge is engaging with the different providers to see how we can do the same thing for families or individuals who are not as vulnerable, who have incomes, it’s just that they need more affordable housing.”


The housing-first model has its detractors. Bob Marchot, executive director of the River of Life Mission, which runs drop-in services for the homeless in Chinatown, employment training programs and a homeless shelter in Waipahu, says the homeless service model isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of affordable housing. Shelters and outreach programs help counsel the homeless as they seek out employment opportunities and tackle mental-health or substance-abuse issues. “Even if we could get them into housing, if we don’t deal with why they’re on the streets to start with, we just change where they sleep,” he says.

Meanwhile, housing-first supporters point to success stories both locally and nationally. In Salt Lake City, for example, the population of chronically homeless people declined by 74 percent over eight years under the model. The trick, providers say, is that people aren’t just placed in permanent housing; they’re placed in housing with support. In some instances, that could mean intensive case management. In others, it could be periodic check-ins and referrals to other programs.


“What we’re trying to do is develop a system of services where people are matched up with the kind of housing that’s most appropriate for them,” says Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs emergency shelters, outreach and housing-first programs.


The housing-first model has actually been in Hawai‘i for years, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the program was rolled out with strong governmental support and coordination across agencies. The initial focus of the program was on the chronically homeless, defined as those who have been on the streets for more than a year and have a disability or mental-health issue. And over the course of the six months ending in January, about 44 chronically homeless people were placed into permanent housing.


Among them was Roger A. Reed Sr., a 55-year-old with advanced Hepatitis C who has been homeless for most of his life, since running away from a foster home at 13. In January, he was placed in a Mō‘ili‘ili studio. He pays about $200 for the unit, and a $1,000 housing voucher covers the rest.


After being in the studio for about a week, Reed still hadn’t come to terms with the roof over his head. “This is not the life I’m used to,” he says, arms crossed, as he leans against his kitchenette. “I don’t want to get too comfortable.” Reed used to sleep on the streets all over O‘ahu. He never had the desire to get help until about a year ago, when he got really sick, and he worried he would die on the streets.


Advocates say while they don’t see a future without homeless shelters or, for that matter, without homeless, they do believe a new emphasis on housing will reduce the amount of time people spend on the streets, and save money by cutting everything from emergency room visits to arrests to homeless outreach services.


“The old system was outreach first, then we move people into an emergency shelter, then we connect them to services, then they’ll move to a transitional shelter for another two years. It’s a pretty lengthy period,” says Jason Espero, director of Waikīkī Health’s Care-A-Van program, a medical outreach program. But, Espero adds, moving people directly into housing comes with its own challenges: Providers have to find supportive landlords; they have to make sure their clients have valid identification, which is often lost on the streets; and they need to coordinate how someone will get help once they’ve moved in. “We’re still seeing what works, and what doesn’t work. We’re slowly getting people off the street,” he says. “ Ultimately, if we focus more on subsidized housing versus temporarily sheltering people, that’s really the solution.”


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Honolulu Magazine August 2020