Compassion’s New Face

New solutions to helping the homeless can seem, at first glance, pretty radical. Is Hawai’i ready to embrace them?

Quick quiz: Who are we, as a society, willing to house, feed and clothe?

    a) The struggling mother with two diaper-clad kids.
    b) A family juggling jobs, but not able to make rent.
    c) A family from Micronesia, who arrive without English-language skills or anywhere to stay.
    d) The unemployed, chronic alcoholic.

It gets progressively harder, doesn’t it, as you go down the list?

Most taxpayers can accept—some graciously, some begrudgingly—that part of our paychecks goes to help the less fortunate. And Hawai‘i’s government and others who work on behalf of the homeless deserve tremendous credit for their recent efforts. Gov. Linda Lingle was even honored with the “A Home for Every American” Award from the United States Interagency Council of Homelessness, for her 10-year plan for the state.

The same group that honored Lingle also praised Seattle for its controversial way of dealing with homeless alcoholics: free housing for 75 “chronic public inebriates.” They live in an apartment building, but are not forced into treatment. It sounds counterintuitive—go ahead, keep killing yourself—yet this solution is far cheaper than leaving them sprawled on the sidewalk. The New York Times reports that the public spent $50,000 a year on each of these homeless alcoholics when they were bouncing between jail and emergency rooms, but will spend only $13,000 yearly on each now that they’re in permanent housing.

Seattle’s program shows the sea change occurring in policies on the homeless. The old model: a hot meal and a good sermon. The new model: all the résumé writing classes in the world aren’t going to help some of the homeless population, and aggressively addressing that group will free up resources. In Hawai‘i, for example, 30 to 50 percent of the estimated 14,000 homeless people are chronically homeless, reports state agency Housing & Community Development Corp. of Hawai‘i. They are the most visible—the disabled, the addicted, the guy muttering to his rabbit—and the most expensive, with frequent excursions to detox, courtrooms and psychiatric centers.

photo: Getty Images

New York City will test a progressive method of dealing with the homeless when the Andrews House opens next spring. A former flophouse in the Bowery, sunless and stained, is being renovated … to be the flophouse of the future. The plan is to offer spartan, tiny but nonetheless private, safe and clean rooms, as short-term, first-step housing. The program was developed using a radical concept: Ask the homeless what they really want, and give it to them. After interviewing 100 homeless people, advocate group Common Ground held a design competition to come up with the housing units, which will cost about $7 per night to rent.

Last year, Atlanta opened its $5 million Gateway Center, which welcomes the homeless with showers, a coin laundry and phones. Better yet, it offers around-the-clock mental health services, funded by a grant from the Georgia Department of Human Resources. The mental illness angle is particularly important, notes Laura E. Thielen, executive director of the Affordable Housing & Homeless Alliance in Honolulu. “I don’t think everyone can become self-sufficient, but their level of independence can be increased.”

Clearly, a new wave of philosophies on the homeless is emerging.

The question is whether Hawai‘i residents are ready to try them. Can we hand out free soap, therapy and apartments? Are we OK with addicts remaining addicts? How about having a lodging house full of stinky old guys in your neighborhood? We have to choose: either help people whom we find distasteful, or keep having to look at them in our parks.

The fact is, there will always be a percentage of people who simply aren’t able—for whatever reason—to be their own caretakers. How well we treat them will tell us how civilized we really are.