Afterthoughts: Outside the Box

Strapped for cash to solve the homeless problem, we’re going to have to get creative.

Photo: Linny Morris

You’re not blind to the tents, the shopping carts. You’ve read the statistics that homelessness on Oahu rose 10 to 15 percent in the last year.

The need for addressing this crisis is greater than ever, yet we seem less and less able to help. Budgets for state agencies have been slashed, funding to nonprofits cut. But what if we looked at this as a chance for creativity? What could we try that’s different?

We could lighten up about letting the homeless live among us. In March, 200 people came out to protest against a proposed new homeless shelter—which also would have provided care for the mentally ill—in Chinatown. Apparently, it’s fine to have homeless people wandering around, sleeping and peeing near schools, apartments and shops. But housing them near schools, apartments and shops? Unacceptable. News flash to the NIMBY group Concerned Citizens of River Street: The homeless are already there. (And since I live in that neighborhood, I could say “here.”) Why not at least have them showered and using an indoor toilet, instead of camped out on our doorsteps on a piece of cardboard?

Microloans. Hey, it works in Bangladesh. Microfinance aid continues to draw converts—and controversy—for international aid, but it’s worth a try at home, too. The University of North Carolina has a pilot program that gives homeless borrowers $300 loans, along with assistance from volunteer “loan officers,” to help them establish bank accounts and rebuild their credit history.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

Spruce up what we’ve got. According to Doran James Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, there are hundreds of public-housing units vacant because the state doesn’t have the money to repair them. His nonprofit worked with volunteers to reduce the inventory of some of the empty units by getting them painted. I bet a lot of Hawaii residents would come forward to help, to paint, or do repairs, or donate a mattress, if what was needed was more broadly publicized. 

Rethink institutionalization. In the 1970s, an unlikely coupling—liberals concerned with patients’ civil rights, and fiscal conservatives, looking to the government’s bottom line—joined together to practically empty public psychiatric hospitals. No one wants a hospital horror show, but the fact remains, a significant chunk of the homeless population suffers from mental illness (roughly 30 percent). They need intensive supervision and medical assistance, at least for a time.

Hawaii is one of 44 states that has an assisted outpatient law, which means there can be legal intervention to force someone with a severe mental illness to get treatment. Unlike some states, where someone has to be proved to be dangerous to themselves or others, in Hawaii, it’s based on need, including being “unable to provide for basic personal needs for food, clothing or shelter.” Yet it’s hard to use this law, because our state has a severe shortage of places to put patients. Hawaii has only 13.5 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, less than one-third what experts recommend, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, which tracks national data on people with severe mental illness.

Employee Housing. A decline in purchasing power of low-paying jobs, coupled with a decrease in affordable housing, has upped the number of “working homeless.” Businesses can’t function without workers, and no one benefits from having their nightshifts sleeping in the park all day. Are there ways to incentivize some businesses to provide decent housing? Could, say, the first floor of a hotel be converted into employee quarters? 

Groups all over Hawaii are trying novel ways to solve homelessness. Some of these ideas will crash and burn, some will succeed, but, as the old expression goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”      
For more of Wagner’s writing, see her “Guilty Pleasures” blog.