Hawaii has one of the worst rates of homelessness in the nation, but U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz believes the answer is staring policymakers in the face: Put homeless people into housing through an approach called Housing First, something the state and city have embarked on but Schatz says not everyone has embraced.
Housing First involves getting homeless people into homes as quickly as possible and then providing supportive services as needed. The strategy has been credited with nearly eradicating homelessness in Utah, but in Hawaii, it’s been slow to make an impact.
“If we’re going to get serious about this problem in the long run, we have to do Housing First and that means building units and aligning existing funding streams,” Schatz said during a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting Thursday. “Everybody is going to have to have a Housing First ethic.”
Both the state and the city already have Housing First programs, but so far the efforts are small compared with the need. The Legislature set aside $1.5 million this year to house 75 people, and the city’s $2 million program is seeking to house 115 households by the end of October.
That represents only about 2 percent of the 7,620 homeless people in the state, according to the latest data available.
“Although our challenge is enormous, it is actually not complicated.” — Sen. Brian Schatz
“I think we’re now starting to hover around the Housing First approach as a collective consensus,” Schatz said. “I don’t think we’re actually quite there yet.”
The senator noted studies have shown it’s more expensive to provide services to homeless people than to house them. He referenced a Vox article that found it’s three times cheaper to give homeless people housing than to leave them on the streets.
Schatz said at first he was wary about joining Gov. David Ige’s leadership team for homelessness because he didn’t want to be part of a commission that simply wrote a report and submitted it to the Legislature. He said he was assured that the team would take action.
To Schatz, that means appropriating money for homelessness and aligning it with Housing First.
“We have literacy programs for homeless children and that’s hard to argue with because it’s a pretty sympathetic cause, but the truth is if you are deploying a person out to a homeless family I think their singular focus, if they’re a social worker, is to try to find them a safe place to be,” he said.
“I think there’s going to have to be some tough choices and shared sacrifices even within the social service agency community to kind of understand that the object of this exercise is not to service the problem of homelessness but to try to solve it and that means really zeroing on Housing First.”
Schatz acknowledged that high rents and a lack of sufficient housing inventory are major challenges for Housing First in Hawaii, and said there won’t be any instant gratification.
“This is a tremendously important challenge for our generation in Hawaii and we have to address it accordingly, which means we’re going to have to be patient enough to appropriate the money, build the units and all the rest of it,” he said.
He said law enforcement has its place in dealing with homelessness, but thinks that there’s been too much focus on that.
The city administration and Honolulu City Council members have approved numerous sit-lie bans to please homeowners and business owners, but the rules force homeless people to relocate and sometimes make it difficult for social workers to find them. Yet another sit-lie bill is up for consideration during the City Council’s meeting Wednesday.
Housing First isn’t the only policy response to homelessness that Schatz supports. The senator complimented the state Public Housing Authority’s efforts to prioritize homeless children when picking families off the wait list.
Schatz praised the city administration’s efforts to relax the rules around “ohana units” to allow them to be rented to anyone. The City Council is planning to take up that proposal, Bill 20, on Wednesday.
To Schatz, the bill is “a really smart, probably underrated step, in terms of almost instantly freeing up a bunch of housing not to mention creating cash flow for families who are probably land rich and capital poor.”
But he emphasized that when it comes to solving homelessness, providing more housing is the solution.
“Although our challenge is enormous, it is actually not complicated,” he said.