I appreciate that state Rep. Gene Ward is looking for solutions by publishing the Hawaii Kai Homeless Task Force’s map of the homeless people living in his district.

Legislators, community organizations and residents are all asking themselves what more they can do to help with the homeless crisis in Hawaii. As a public health professional and mental health advocate, I am concerned with details included on Ward’s “homeless map” that reveal mental health and substance use history.

A shift in tone and execution can create a more useful tool to identify the needs of people experiencing homelessness and provide the services they deserve.

There has to be a better way to address homelessness than to create a map of where they’re located and how they behave.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Homelessness is a difficult issue to tackle. Intertwined with someone’s housing status are often issues of mental health, addiction and trauma. Many of our homeless are underage runaway youth or women who are escaping violence.

The high cost of living and regressive taxation policies in Hawaii make affordable rental housing unattainable for many. Too many of our families know what it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck. Printing a map to a community’s homeless with scant, yet sensational, details of observed behavior minimizes the root causes of their housing situation.

At Mental Health America of Hawaii, we work every day to reduce the discrimination and stigma associated with mental health. Many times people are afraid to seek help for treatable mental health issues because they are afraid of the discrimination they may face being labeled as living with a mental illness.

The Hawaii Kai homeless map, by describing a homeless person as a “mentally ill man” that “frequently yells at people,” reinforces the painful stereotypes of people dealing with mental health issues.

Homeless advocates and mental health professionals understand the deep and complex connection between mental health and homelessness. That is why we pushed for and passed the assisted community treatment law, which allows parties to petition Family Court to provide outpatient mental health treatment for people seriously impaired and who may not recognize they need assistance.

It was a bill aimed at providing assistance while maintaining the rights, dignity and privacy of the patient. When the law is finally implemented, it will help create a framework of assistance for our most vulnerable.

Regardless of the legality or usefulness of the homeless map, we have to look at this issue from a holistic viewpoint. We believe that people with mental health issues can attain recovery with proper care and support.

While we understand the need for Ward’s attention to homelessness in his district, we believe the focus should be on trying to address the root causes of homelessness. We must not create further stigma or discrimination against people, regardless of their housing status.

We cannot afford to send people suffering mental health issues or homelessness further into the shadows.

We will continue to work on increasing access to treatment and reducing discrimination and stigma for people living with mental health issues.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

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