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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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Triaging the homeless

Bobby Hickox, 61, stands outside his tent in Kaka‘ako, where he had to move after being unable to afford a place with his girlfriend.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon


Efforts to take housing first statewide and expand it beyond the chronically homeless are still in their early days, but there are bright spots in the current homeless initiative that providers say haven’t been seen before.  For one, there is greater coordination of existing services—for the first time, data is being collected centrally and in real time, providers are frequently communicating to better allocate resources, and committees are bringing together people statewide to plan for the future. Over the past year, the state has also started to roll out a new assessment tool for the homeless, aimed at determining who needs the most help—and what kind of help they need.


The triage system separates people into three categories. Individuals and families with the highest needs and vulnerability get identified for “permanent supportive housing”—intensive case management and a long-term housing subsidy. The less severe tier is called rapid rehousing, and people who fall into that category are determined to need short-term case management and a subsidy that will last up to nine months. And people who need just a little help are identified as “mainstream”—they might need a one-time voucher, a little time to save up or help reconciling with family members so they can double up for the short or long term.


So far, about 1,800 homeless on O‘ahu have been given the triage assessment, most in the urban core. Providers found about 31 percent needed permanent supportive housing, 43 percent needed rapid rehousing and the rest just needed a one-time hand up. Assessment results are logged in a database available to providers who coordinate statewide, which means when a place becomes available it can go to the person with the highest need.


“What this is really about is trying to understand the needs of the different cohorts,” says Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless services coordinator.


“One size fits all doesn’t work. The idea is to move that housing conversation up as soon as possible,” says Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless services coordinator.


Shifting the state’s focus from homeless shelters and outreach to housing first will require reallocating funds and shifting personnel. The state is already looking at how that will happen, starting with how it contracts with providers for the upcoming fiscal year. Providers don’t expect the shift to be dramatic, but there will be a greater emphasis on moving people out of shelters and off the streets quickly. And officials believe eventually, the cost of the social safety net for the homeless will go down, though they’re not clear how much could be saved.


Over the past four years, the state has spent more than $52 million for homeless shelters alone. Another $8 million in state funds has gone to homeless outreach. The federal government and city also pitch in for homeless programs, and millions of dollars of donor funds go to the problem.


Sarah Yuan, an associate specialist at the UH Mānoa Center on the Family and lead author of the center’s annual Homeless Service Utilization Report, says she expects, by the end of the year, providers statewide will have a better handle on how to triage the homeless to identify how much help they need. But changing the system? Shifting resources? Adding to the affordable housing inventory? That could take years. “Even if it may take time to see the positive impacts, it is the right direction to go,” she says.


For now, though, many remain stuck in dire situations.


Back at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park, the Fuiavas are packing up, preparing to go run some errands before settling in for the evening. After a year on the streets, the family of nine is now accustomed to the indignities of homelessness—showering in public parks, storing your life in suitcases and plastic containers, cooking on a hot plate. April Fuiava says they’ve also developed a routine. They learned how to camp at parks during the weekends, which gives the kids a break from the cramped vehicles. They learned how to evade homeless sweeps. The kids learned how to finish their homework at school; they learned, the hard way, that using the vehicle lights runs down the battery too quickly.


And, at night, the family splits up—girls in the Fuiavas’ big van where they can stretch out, boys in an SUV where they have to sleep sitting up. Dozens of other homeless line Kapālama Canal along with the Fuiavas and, from time to time, the city notifies them that they’ll have to clear out.


The Fuiavas say, after a year on the streets, they don’t see any way out. Landlords won’t rent to such a big family, the couple says, and they’re not interested in moving into a homeless shelter. They’ve turned to friends and family, but they don’t want to be too much of a burden. And they’ve accepted limited help from social-service groups, mostly to keep the family’s cars insured and road-worthy. April Fuiava says she hopes her struggle has some meaning—she hopes, in the end, she’ll be able to say she’s come out a better person, who appreciates what she has, and who knows there are people worse off. “We can be homeless, but it doesn’t mean we’re hopeless,” she says. “Being out here, I trust God has a mission for me.”   


As this issue went to print, the Fuiava family was able to secure a home and move off the streets. “It takes some getting used to,” April Fuiava says. “I am so happy, you would not even believe.”


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Honolulu Magazine July 2020