“Until you’ve lost your dignity, you don’t understand homelessness.”

That comment from a guest at Thursday night’s Civil Cafe discussion may be true, but it hasn’t stopped many people from trying to find a solution to a hardship that has afflicted thousands of people in Hawaii.

More than 100 people gathered at Fresh Cafe in Kakaako to ask questions, demand action and listen to a panel of experts discuss an intractable and longstanding problem in the Aloha State.

DRY SAIMIN A homeless man has a morning bite to near the closed entrance to Ala Moana Shopping Center as Oahu waited for Tropical Storm Iselle on August 8, 2014

Tropical Storm Iselle highlighted the vulnerability of homeless people, like this man having breakfast near the closed entrance to Ala Moana Shopping Center on the morning when the storm hit.

Cory Lum for Civil Beat

On Oahu alone, more than 4,700 people are believed to be homeless, and the numbers are growing. Meanwhile, police are clearing out homeless encampments in parks under the guise of the mayor’s “compassionate disruption” policy and the islands suffer a severe shortage of affordable housing. 

But as several people pointed out during the lively two-plus hour talk, moderated by Civil Beat’s Gene Park and Chad Blair, the issue is about more than disputable and hard-to-pin-down statistics. It’s about human lives and how society responds to those most in need.

The panel included Colin Kippen, Hawaii homelessness coordinator; Jun Yang, Honolulu housing executive director; Jerry Coffee, Institute for Human Services clinical director; and Jason Espero, director of Care-A-Van for Waikiki Health Center. 

They took turns fielding tough questions — and pointed accusations — from the moderators and the audience, which included state lawmakers, human rights advocates and homeless people

In the end, many questions were left unanswered, prompting some in the audience to call attention to the fact that even though the homeless situation has been worsening for decades, leading to the current crisis, there is still a lot more talk than effective action on the ground. 

Simple questions, like why Hawaii doesn’t have mobile home parks or build micro dwellings, were often answered with vagaries about how the administrations of Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. Neil Abercrombie continue to look into alternative housing ideas.

“This will not get solved unless we can establish the political will to do something different,” Kippen said. 

That “something different” involves shifting the focus to finding permanent housing for those who don’t have it, he said. 

Yang is on board with that plan too.

“The community doesn’t want to hear anything more about it,” the Honolulu housing executive director said. “They want to see it.”

Asked where those homes could be located, such as in the tourist hub of Waikiki where many homeless reside, no one had a clear answer. 

Civil Cafe on homelessness

Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair, left, moderated a discussion with panelists Colin Kippen, Hawaii coordinator on homelessness; Jun Yang, Honolulu executive director of housing; Jason Espero, director of Caravan; and Jerry Coffee, clinical director of the Institute for Human Services.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

In Kakaako, which is flush with development, 4,500 new housing units are being built. Yet Halekauwila Place is the only project catering to low-income people, making less than 5 percent of the new residential units affordable.

Coffee called it “ironic” that the Civil Cafe homelessness discussion was taking place in Kakaako.

Kippen, with support from other panelists, said the private sector really needs to step up and play a role in responding to the housing crisis; government can’t do it alone.

“The dynamics of running a shelter are just mind-boggling,” he said.

Coffee said it’s hard to house some people in temporary homes because they don’t want to be restricted by the community rules. He said he has to remind them that they are staying in an “institution” and their well-being depends on it.

Kippen was one of many in the room who agreed that the high cost of living in Hawaii and the lack of availability of affordable housing has only contributed to the problem. “The road that we have to walk here in Hawaii is extremely steep,” he said.

At one point, Coffee said the discussion on homelessness wouldn’t be complete without pointing out that 40 percent of the people who have stayed at his shelter in the past six months came from the mainland and couldn’t get their new lives in Hawaii to work out.

Some of the people in the audience who spoke up during the question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion criticized characterizations that many of the state’s homeless are addicts or unsanitary. 

“There is a vernacular here that degrades the houseless people,” human rights advocate Kathryn Xian said. “You talked about them being dirty, from the mainland … That’s not descriptive of the entire population.” 

The Q&A portion often lacked substantive responses to the many questions asked by the audience, like why there is no widespread rent control policy.

Rather than ask questions, many who took the mic simply expounded on their own theories about how homelessness got so bad and what should be done now to respond to the crisis.

You can watch the entire discussion below:

Civil Beat’s live blog captured many of the sentiments. Check it out here:

Live Blog Civil Cafe â Honolulu Homelessness: Paradise Lost

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