The homeless population in Hawaii continues to rise Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

HONOLULU – Oahu’s homeless are most visible in Kakaako, Waikiki, and Chinatown but they are everywhere throughout the state, in the parks and bushes and at the beach.

Several of Hawaii’s political candidates have made addressing Hawaii’s homelessness and lack of housing a top issue this election.

Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

Jeff Davis, a Libertarian candidate for governor, has been holding a series of celebrity sleepovers in Kakaako, to bring attention to a homeless city that’s been constructed there.

Davis, who has been sleeping in the park with the homeless to get a better understanding of the issues the homeless populations face, said he’s concerned for the children who live in this camp with very little protection or support.

Davis compared Kakaako to the homeless villages in the Philippines.

Homeless court, partnership with Hawaii National Guard, could identify, help homeless

Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, who is running for governor, has also made addressing homelessness in Hawaii a top priority.

The homeless population has increased 30 percent since 2010, and Aiona said it is a public safety issue for everyone.

Aiona has outlined two policy initiatives, which he said will have an immediate impact on over two-thirds of the state’s homeless population, including veterans, those with mental illness and chronic substance abuse users.

Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

To address Hawaii’s veteran homeless population, one of the worst in the nation, Aiona will immediately implement a program in conjunction with the Hawai‘i National Guard.

He said he will direct the Guard to ‘leave no service member behind’ with peer-to-peer outreach to homeless veterans, which will get them the job training and services for mental health and substance abuse.

To address the over two-thirds of Hawaii’s homeless who are not veterans, but who are either mentally ill or chronic substance abusers, Aiona plans to create a Homeless Court similar to those in other states.

The Homeless Court, which will allow homeless to immediately get off the streets, will be mobile coming to the homeless, rather than the homeless having to come to court.

Legislator wants tent cities, dorms – temporarily

State Sen. Will Espero, a candidate for Hawaii’s Congressional District 2, said the need for affordable housing in the state has reached critical mass.

“With a new generation of working class families seeking housing, it is imperative that our state help to address the state’s limited supply of housing options. While the affordable housing supply is critical, the homeless crisis in our state, especially in Honolulu, is an epidemic that requires immediate attention by government and the private sector,” Espero said.

During the 2014 legislative session, policymakers made significant headway in addressing affordable housing and homelessness by the passage of several key measures, he said.

  • Senate Bill 2542 will divert $33 million to provide loans and grants for the development and construction of rental housing units.
  • House Bill 2251 increases the Hula Mae Multifamily Revenue Bond authorization, which helps first-time homebuyers with 30-year mortgages, from $750,000,000 to $1,000,000,000.
  • House Bill 2248 authorizes the Hawaii Housing Finance Development Corporation to issue bonds for infrastructure for land owned by an eligible developer of affordable housing.
  • House Bill 1700 includes $52 million in appropriations to address housing and homelessness including an appropriation for the Housing First program.

Espero said lawmakers also need to think creatively to tackle the problem. He believes the state should set up a temporary homeless village at Sand Island in Kalihi using as many as 100 tents, restrooms, showers and social service support. The homeless there would also be offered parking, transportation, and security.

Dormitory-style housing for adults is another option, Espero said.

Both would be temporary solutions while affordable housing is being built, Espero said.

City Council bills controversial

Meanwhile the city is also addressing homelessness, but city council members bills have been controversial.

Kathryn Xian, a Democratic candidate for Congressional District 1, has opposed the Honolulu City Council’s efforts to “criminalize the homeless.”

She rallied her supporters on Facebook this week to defeat the city council’s efforts to pass five ordinances that would go as far as prohibiting anyone from sitting or lying on public sidewalks or using the bathroom in public.

Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

Businesses want the legislation passed because they say they can’t operate when homeless are sleeping in front of their door and using the bathroom on the sidewalks and doorways.

But Xian said the “houseless” need help, not punishment. “We need housing first, not jail first. What we’re looking at is a very dangerous precedent of state sanction, criminalization of poverty and that’s not somewhere we want to go,”  Xian said.

Four of the five bills passed the Honolulu City Council Zoning and Planning Committee and will go before the full city council on July 9 for a second vote and public hearing.

The bills need to pass the majority of the 9 member city council on third reading and get the mayor’s approval before becoming law.

Honolulu police and the state court system will have an additional challenge in enforcing the law.

Where are the homeless coming from?

There have been allegations that mainland states purchase one way airline tickets for homeless and send them to Hawaii to live on the streets because it’s cheaper to do that then provide government benefits.

In addition, Hawaii’s warm weather and generous government funded social service programs could provide a better lifestyle for homeless living in colder climate states.

Aiona said he will tackle that issue if elected. He already sent a warning to the other 49 states: “When I become Governor, if we determine that any state is engaged in this practice, we will send them back, we will bill the responsible state and I will collect. I will direct our Attorney General to collect on our expenses in returning your resident back to your state.”