From the start, let us say unequivocally that Gov. David Ige deserves credit for creating a new A-Team to focus on homelessness in Honolulu and around the state.

This is not just any public body — it includes Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, two high-ranking state legislators, staff members from Hawaii’s two U.S. Senate offices, the head of the state Department of Human Services, the chair of the Honolulu City Council and the governor himself.

No collection of mid-level bureaucrats, this is a group of leading governmental decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels that has the authority and status to get things done. There will be enormous potential in their planned weekly meetings, because for this group, the only part of the chain of command that exists, in large measure, is the final link represented around their conference table.

We like what that says about shared commitment. There won’t be any need for a Harry Truman-like sign on the group’s door proclaiming “The Buck Stops Here.” As of now, the Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness officially owns the issue, for good or ill.

Governor David Ige, Sen Jill Tokuda and right Rep Sylvia Luke in a press conference held about joint state/city solution to homeless issues. no date decided.  27 july 2015.  photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beatphotograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. David Ige, flanked on the left by Sen. Jill Tokuda and the right by Rep. Sylvia Luke, discusses the new Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As with the creation of any new governmental entity, there are questions around responsibilities, work plans and connections to other groups involved in this issue. How, for instance, will the governor’s team interact with the state Interagency Council on Homelessness? What will its relationship be to the state homelessness coordinator, a position that will be vacant as of Friday, when incumbent Colin Kippen vacates the position after 3 1/2 years on the job? How will it work with the community agencies now meeting homelessness’ challenge each day in cities around our state?

But we trust with the leadership around this table, those are matters that can be quickly and positively resolved.

Perhaps above all, though, there is the question of how eight leaders with extraordinarily full plates to begin with will delegate, reassign and reorganize to make time for a complex challenge of immediate and growing importance to our state. Hawaii’s homeless population numbered 7,620 when the most recent statewide census was conducted in January — a number that had grown by more than 10 percent over last-year’s count and that almost certainly under-reported the total population.

On the Big Island, the homeless population expanded by nearly 43 percent to 1,241. On Maui, the count rose by nearly 19 percent. And on Oahu, the total number of homeless surpassed 4,900 — which meant about 200 more homeless were living on the streets and beaches of the state’s most populous island than last year, despite high-profile efforts aimed at addressing the challenge. Over the past five years, in fact, Oahu’s homeless population has grown by 35 percent.

These are no doubt numbers with which the members of the governor’s leadership team are painfully familiar. Even so, we offer one more statistic to bring the statewide point home: Each night, more people than live on Molokai go to sleep homeless on the streets, sidewalks and beaches of the Aloha State. Shocking, isn’t it?

As that problem has grown over the past year, there has been no small number of missteps in responding. The City of Honolulu has moved ahead with bans on sitting and lying on sidewalks in certain city areas, for instance — measures targeting homeless that have swept them in unprecedented numbers into Kakaako, along the Kapalama Canal and into neighborhoods surrounding central Honolulu. And they’ve moved on those bans without the temporary housing that everyone agreed should be in place before they took effect.

They’ve mounted no credible response to the growing homeless encampments. Intermittent “sweeps,” in which city employees force the homeless and their belongings off the sidewalks and cart away their trash, are followed by the homeless returning to exactly the same spots. They often patiently watch from across the street, simply waiting for clean-up crews to leave. Taxpayers currently spend about $750,000 a year on these efforts.

Each night, more people than live on Molokai go to sleep homeless on the streets, sidewalks and beaches of the Aloha State. Shocking, isn’t it?

At the Legislature, lawmakers failed to adequately fund public housing repair and maintenance, meaning that 175 units will remain vacant over this fiscal year. As Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider reports, another 239 units facing major repairs will remain unavailable for some time, meaning that public housing units that could have served approximately 1,450 this year — or one in five homeless people around the state — is on ice because lawmakers wouldn’t spring for timely repairs.

State lawmakers also passed on or lowballed virtually every opportunity to make meaningful investments in public or affordable housing, considerably complicating the work of public departments and community agencies charged with finding places to live for Hawaii’s most vulnerable people.

If this all sounds terribly complicated and urgent, requiring a Herculean effort to resolve — good. We’ve done our job. The scope and difficulty factor of the issue is such that Gov. Ige’s words in announcing his leadership team on Monday gave us hope.

“This isn’t just another committee. This team is making a commitment to work together to find solutions now,” said Ige. “There is something important going on. We are the people responsible for the public’s welfare. This team is meeting face to face to address homelessness, and we are going to hold each other accountable.”

Four months ago, Civil Beat published an editorial that called into question our collective values in dealing with the challenge of homelessness and whether we were placing a greater emphasis on the appearance of our state for tourists than on questions of basic humanity regarding individuals in profound need, living on our sidewalks.

Gov. Ige’s new team has the opportunity to meet the challenge with unprecedented substance. On behalf of the more than 7,620 men, women and children living hardscrabble lives on the streets of paradise, we wish them success.

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