Just before 10 a.m., on a sunny Thursday in late April, Kehau Reeves was hanging out at her usual spot, near a picnic table at Kewalo Basin Park.
An affable 44-year-old with her hair neatly tied in a ponytail, Reeves is one of the park’s regulars — for more than a year, she’s been camping out here in a small tent.
To bring a semblance of normalcy to her life, she keeps her area clean and organized. She has her belongings tidily folded and arranged around her tent and on benches. When a nearby public restroom gets messy, she cleans it up.
This way, Reeves can endure the vagaries of living hand to mouth. But the homeless life has taken its toll, and she’s desperate to get away from it. To start over, though, Reeves says she needs a roof over her head. “I need a foundation before I can do anything,” she said. “It’s hard to find work being in this situation.”
In recent years, city and state officials have been trying to ramp up a program aimed at identifying chronically homeless people like Reeves and getting them quickly into permanent, supportive housing. Built around a guiding concept known as “Housing First,” it’s the centerpiece of Hawaii’s effort to combat homelessness, and similar programs have proven effective elsewhere.
But, despite an infusion this year of more than $4 million in city and state funds into the program, Oahu’s homeless population is still growing.
The island’s homeless population has surpassed 4,900 people, up nearly 35 percent since 2009, according to a January “point in time” count conducted by the Honolulu Department of Community Services and the Hawaii Department of Human Services’ Homeless Programs Office.
The number of chronically homeless people saw an even sharper increase — a jump of more than 60 percent from 486 in 2009 to 779 in 2015.
Why are the numbers so grim?
A number of underlying factors is at work here: lingering impacts of the Great Recession, the high cost of living, domestic violence, untreated mental illness and drug addiction — even homeless mainlanders opting to move here and live outdoors in Hawaii’s mild climate.
And, once people become homeless in Hawaii, they tend to stay homeless.
The conundrum is exactly what Housing First is designed to address, but the trouble is, the officials can’t seem to get the program firing on all cylinders.
Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless czar, says that’s because Hawaii is missing a key ingredient: sufficient affordable housing units for homeless people to move into.
“Why is it that we still have a high rate of homelessness in Hawaii? I think the real important part of that is the huge disparity between the supply and demand here for affordable housing,” Kippen said.
That’s a challenge other places implementing Housing First also grapple with, but most have found ways to get past it.
Even San Francisco, notorious for its housing crunch, has managed to bring down the city’s chronically homeless population by more than 50 percent from 2009 to 2013 — but it’s been willing to spend far more than Hawaii on the effort.
In 2004, San Francisco set an ambitious goal of creating 3,000 new supportive housing units for the chronically homeless, and it expects to achieve that within the next few years. So far, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development there has committed more than $450 million to the cause.
Scott Morishige, executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED, says Hawaii is paying the price for decades of underdevelopment.
“There’s such a huge level of need in the community, and the fact is that we just don’t have enough affordable housing to be able to meet the demand,” Morishige said.
This all leaves Reeves stuck at the park, waiting for her turn with Housing First. “It’s tough being out here,” she said. “Not everybody can do this, you know. It definitely builds up a character.”
Under Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s policies, many homeless people are moving far more frequently than Reeves.
Since taking office two years ago, Caldwell has shown an appetite to meet the homeless issue head-on, with an array of initiatives.
So far, what’s earned him the most attention — and controversy — is a concept he calls “compassionate disruption.” At its heart is a series of laws banning people from sitting or lying on the city’s busiest public sidewalks.
The mayor declined to comment for this story, but the goal, Caldwell has said, is to prod the homeless into shelters where they can receive needed services.
“There’s such a huge level of need in the community, and the fact is that we just don’t have enough affordable housing to be able to meet the demand.” — Scott Morishige, PHOCUSED
“Through this compassionate disruption, providers have told us there’s been a great uptick in people moving into shelters,” Caldwell said in his 2015 State of the City address in February. “We’re making a difference.”
The mayor’s effort has enjoyed a wide support from the City Council. Last week, it even approved a bill that expands the coverage area of the sit-lie ban beyond the city’s business districts to include an area along Kapalama Canal, where the homeless population has skyrocketed since the ban took effect last year.
But Caldwell’s critics have long argued that the sit-lie ban blatantly discriminates against the homeless and, as Civil Beat reported in February, only push them to less visible areas of the city — not to shelters.
Still, Caldwell isn’t backing down. He has even floated an idea of opening a tent facility on Sand Island to temporarily house some of the homeless. The idea was put on hold late last year because of possible soil contamination, but tests came back in March showing that the proposed site is safe for human habitation.
The mayor’s embrace of Housing First has been far less controversial.
The concept is a complete departure from the old approach of addressing homelessness. Instead of getting homeless people “housing-ready” by first addressing their underlying problems — such as alcoholism, drug abuse or mental illness — Housing First gets people housed first and deploys on-site case managers to help them work through other issues later.
The approach can lead to significant cost savings by preventing people from cycling through emergency rooms, additional treatment, psychiatric care and jails. A study in Portland, Oregon, for instance, found that the city was able to save more than $17,000 a year for each Housing First participant.
“In order for us to really make the impact, we want to have places for us to move people into.” — Connie Mitchell, The Institute for Human Services
But is Oahu ready to pay now what it takes to reap such future savings?
For the 2015 fiscal year, Caldwell convinced the City Council to allocate $3 million in operating funds to his Housing First program, with a goal of housing 110 people by the end of June.
Since December, the program has housed 43 people, according to Connie Mitchell, executive director of The Institute for Human Services, which contracts with the city to administer it. So far, Mitchell says, the IHS has managed to place all of them into private apartments after putting considerable effort into working with landlords.
Caldwell is now asking the City Council to let him expand the program. In his proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1, he is seeking $5.5 million to house an additional 100 people.
The Legislature, meanwhile, set aside $1.5 million for the 2015 fiscal year to house 75 people through the state’s own version of Housing First. The budget details for the 2016 fiscal year have not been released by the Legislature, which is still working to update the budget worksheets detailing the allocation for Housing First.
Ultimately, whether Housing First can succeed here may depend on how willing city and state lawmakers are to tap into taxpayer dollars to expand Hawaii’s affordable housing stock — and be in the “housing business,” as Honolulu’s Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer puts it.
It’s a daunting task — a number of studies have shown that Hawaii has a lot to do to catch up with its housing needs, even before taking the homeless into account.
In 2014, for instance, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation estimated that more than 10,000 rental units would need to be built by 2020 to keep up with the needs of low-income families earning incomes at or below 60 percent of the area median income, or $72,840 a year for a family of four.
As for the homeless, relying solely on the private housing market to provide the needed units has already proven difficult. As Civil Beat recently reported, dozens of homeless veterans are stuck waiting for months for private apartments to open up, even though their rental subsidies are guaranteed through a federal Housing First program called the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.
This is why many advocates have been urging city and state lawmakers to do more to fill the gap.
“For us, advocacy has just become a greater part of what we do now because we know that just providing emergency services is not going to solve the problem,” Mitchell said. “In order for us to really make the impact, we want to have places for us to move people into.”
In the city’s last round of budget negotiations, such advocacy efforts led to an unexpected pot of money — $32 million in general obligation bonds — from the City Council to help advance Caldwell’s housing strategy, which aims to add 4,000 affordable units in five years.
“The number of affordable units we’re building isn’t going to come close to meeting the needs. Not even close.” Colin Kippen, state homeless coordinator
With this money in the mix, the Caldwell administration had a total of more than $44 million at its disposal, Deemer says, and it has drawn up a plan to use the funds to create 143 affordable units prioritized for the homeless. Most of that would involve converting the existing housing stock, but the plan also includes construction of 11 single-room units at a cost of $50,000 to $80,000 apiece.
For its part, the Legislature injected $40 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which provides loans or grants to developers to construct affordable rental units, for the 2016 fiscal year. The fund is expected to add about 320 units within the next few years.
While these units aren’t set aside specifically for Housing First, the state has some wiggle room, says Jenny Lee, staff attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “My suggestion would be to designate some of those units for those experiencing homelessness,” she said.
All in all, Kippen finds it encouraging that the lawmakers seem to be finally coming to grips with the reality that, to really make a dent in the state’s homeless crisis, they have to address the severe shortage of affordable housing.
What’s needed now, he says, is a sense of urgency.
“The number of affordable units we’re building isn’t going to come close to meeting the needs. Not even close.”