Every time I pass a homeless person I feel wretchedly helpless.

I am nervous about approaching someone who might resent my questions, or who, in some cases may be mentally ill. I want to help, but I am overwhelmed by where to begin. Sometimes I offer some money. Other times, I move on and try to put that image of human misery tucked under a bridge or pushing a shopping cart or two, full of a family’s worldly possessions, out of my mind.

I don’t think I am alone in wrestling with both guilt and frustration. Looking the other way does not work — the makeshift camps are everywhere. Sit-lie laws may move the houseless out of one area, only to prompt them to find (temporary) and woefully inadequate refuge on another street, under another bridge.

At a Housing Now rally that took place in front of Honolulu Hale last week, I was fortunate to meet Millie. Millie knows the stories of many of the homeless on the streets of Honolulu. She is a compassionate soul who has lost two legs to diabetes and fends for herself from a wheelchair. She explains how many feel. “They are treated like opala (rubbish),” she says.

“They keep sweeping, sweeping, hoping they can sweep the homeless away like garbage, but eventually they are going to run out of carpet.”

Oliver (only first name given) adjusts his bicycle near his tent under the H1 overpass, along Harding Avenue. homeless tents. 16 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If you’re not comfortable approaching homeless people personally, there are other ways you can help.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Joel Kado, 24, was one of the younger people holding up signs at the rally that drew dozens. Kado is from St. Paul, Minnesota, and is here in Hawaii studying acting at Hawaii Pacific University. He heard about the rally through Rev. Diane Martinson at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and decided to attend. He has never been involved in activism of this kind before, but he hopes “this will set the ball rolling.” He sees the problem, and his motivation in coming to the rally was simple: “I want to help.”

Rents Rise, Wages Remain Low

As the Faith Action for Community Equity organization points out, “The average cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu is $1,810 – which means you would need to make $31 an hour to afford that rent.”

Housing Now, a coalition of several agencies and nonprofits, is pushing for better policy responses to the growing numbers who live on the sidewalks of this beautiful city. Last Thursday’s rally was led by a coalition of people of faith, but also drew nonprofit leaders and diverse members of the community, including the houseless.

Gary Hooser, former majority leader of the Hawaii Senate, now serving on the Kauai County Council and founder of the nonprofit Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, described the rationale given to him for the increasingly draconian measures taken to clear the homeless from their encampments.

“I was told that the thinking behind the laws was to make the homeless uncomfortable, so that they would move on. I think the people we should make uncomfortable are people like me, politicians and those in leadership positions who could be doing more to provide housing now,” said Hooser. “It’s just not acceptable that people who work full-time at multiple jobs that do not pay enough to put food on the table or a roof above their heads and are therefore on the streets should have their struggles compounded by aggressive policing. This is not right. The only way anything will get done to help the homeless, not just harass them, is if enough people make noise.”

And make noise they did. Among the many speakers at the rally was the dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Rev. Walter Brownridge. His audience was probably surprised to hear him invoke the title of the second novel from Harper Lee that has been so much in the news lately. He did so because Lee’s novel borrows its title from Isaiah, and the line “Go set a watchman” is a call to bear prophetic witness. We are all called to identify what is wrong, and do what is necessary to set it right.

There is plenty that is wrong about the number of luxury towers that are going up and are permitted for future construction on an island that is already feeling the stress on public infrastructure. Clearly, there is no doubt that we will have luxury housing for the wealthy and super-wealthy in abundance, but there is little sign that we are making progress in providing affordable housing. While rents and home purchase prices remain out of reach of ordinary wage-earners, wages have remained tethered to the ground like the tents that pass for dwellings in a place that is so often described as paradise.

Tell us how we can help

HomeAid America, a leading national nonprofit dedicated to providing housing for today’s homeless, says that “the vast majority of these have been thrust into homelessness by a life-altering event or series of events that were unexpected and unplanned for.”

These include “the loss of loved ones, job loss, domestic violence, divorce and family disputes. Other impairments, such as depression, untreated mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, and physical disabilities, are also responsible for a large portion of the homeless.”

A letter presented to the governor, mayor, state legislators and City Council members and signed by FACE and other organizations that have partnered with it to call for Housing Now, urges greater cooperation between the state and the city and applauds what has been done so far to increase services, provide accessory housing and encourage public/private partnerships.

But it also points to the need to do much more.

Create an ‘Angie’s List’ to Help Homeless

While political leadership is vital, the contributions of ordinary citizens could also help.

Why not create a centralized database that allows the people of Hawaii to commit to providing very specific forms of help that could go toward getting a family or an individual off the street?

The leadership team that the governor recently announced has no timeline. The team promises thoughtful solutions implemented in a methodical way through a network of agencies.

As the wheels of bureaucracy turn, we as individuals can be asked to help in personal ways that might provide immediate relief to some families at least. If Angie’s List can connect homeowners to handymen, and e-harmony can help people find soulmates, the leadership team should be able to create an online service that lists the kinds of help needed, and who needs them and invite ordinary citizens to step up and say if they can provide any item on that list for one individual, one family. Or more.

If one family is taken off the streets because an individual or a business has signed up to provide the security deposit they need to rent an apartment; if another family is taken off the streets because a business is ready to provide a job that pays a living wage, we would not have solved the issue of homelessness but we would have begun to take personal responsibility for a problem that really all of us own.

Yes, it is time to go set a watchman.

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