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Laura E. Thielen


photo: Jimmy Forrest

The decision to close Ala Moana Beach Park overnight in March served as a painful reminder of Hawai‘i’s growing homeless problem. The nightly closures, which will continue this month, left more than 200 homeless people scrambling for places to sleep. Laura E. Thielen, executive director of the nonprofit Affordable Housing & Homeless Alliance, discusses what the city could have done better and how we can end chronic homelessness.

Q: After closing Ala Moana Beach Park, the city allowed homeless people to camp near police headquarters downtown, while the state considered other alternatives. What are your thoughts on how the city handled the situation?
A: It was bad timing and bad communication. It’s important to recognize the community wanting to feel comfortable at the beach park, but the way the city handled it was very poor. Service providers found out with the rest of the public, through a press release. Letting us know what was going on might have prevented people from getting disconnected from their case managers and losing their services. We had [record rainfall], and a lot of the agencies were already seeing more health problems with people because of it. Then they had the added stress of finding somewhere else to stay.

Q: Were you surprised at how many people supported the city’s actions?
A: You can’t walk at Ala Moana Beach Park without seeing someone who may be homeless, so I can see why people supported the clearout. People are also seeing homeless in their own neighborhoods. Communities that have never had homeless before all of a sudden have families living in their local parks, and it’s shocking. How that works in our favor is there’s more attention drawn to the issue and hopefully, there are more solutions to ending it.

Q: Are there any estimates of how large Hawai‘i’s homeless population really is?
A: The state Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai‘i states that, in 2005, more than 14,000 people have experienced homelessness at any given time throughout the year, and that only counts those who actually get money from the [public housing agency]. There are inherent problems in trying to count the homeless. For outreach workers on the streets, we’re seeing a lot more than what’s reported, especially on the Neighbor Islands.

Q: Hawai‘i’s economy is booming. Our unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation. Why are more people homeless?
A: The reality is that when the economy is doing well, those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum suffer even more. Our housing costs are going sky high. Rents that were $350 a couple of years ago are now $1,000. My motto has always been, “Housing is health care.” If we can get people into housing, a lot of issues—substance abuse, mental illness, poverty—can be dealt with in a more timely fashion and in a healthier environment. We shouldn’t be treating people on the streets.

Q: What more can the public and our elected officials do to address the homeless problem?
A: As a state, we need to work harder on securing grants and other funding that’s out there. We also need to look at some basic things, like increasing the living wage, increasing the amount of money the state contributes to the Rental Housing Trust Fund [which offers loans to developers building affordable housing units]. Community members also need to realize that homelessness is our problem. It’s not the providers’ problem or the governor’s problem. It’s the entire community’s problem.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2017
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