Just in time for the holiday season, good news: We’re getting a bit better, a little less heartless about how we remove the homeless and their belongings from our sidewalks.
We don’t mean to belittle that morsel of progress by the City of Honolulu — even if the change only came about thanks to a legal challenge.
The city ordinances on sidewalk nuisances and stored property and the ways they’ve been enforced are beneath the level of decency we should expect from our public institutions in dealing with some of our most vulnerable, troubled residents. So the changes in how they are enforced are a step forward.
As we’ve pointed out before, enforcing those ordinances and the city’s controversial sit-lie bans without adequate shelter to house the homeless individuals affected is both counter-productive and morally bankrupt. They’ve had the collective effect of simply pushing homeless people into new neighborhoods, often while depriving them of some of their few belongings, critical identification cards and important papers in the process.
The city is the target of a federal class action lawsuit over those tactics, and an agreement already reached as part of that suit essentially compels the city and its maintenance crews to act more humanely in those scenarios.
If the actions that Civil Beat reporter Rui Kaneya observed last week over two nights with enforcement teams are the new rule rather than the exception, it seems as though workers are approaching the homeless with greater understanding, treating them and their belongings with greater respect.
One homeless woman who had experienced the city’s previous approach notably compared it to what she went through last Wednesday morning:
“They’ve taken a lot of my stuff before. And they would tell me stuff like, ‘We don’t ever want to see you again.’ They had no heart,” she said. “But they were awesome tonight. One of them just came right up to me and said, ‘We’re going to let you keep all your stuff, but we’ve got to do a sweep.’ They’ve never been quite as nice as they were tonight.”
We cautiously hope this is the beginning of lasting progress, and we commend the American Civil Liberties Union and Alston Floyd Hunt and Ing, who legally represent the interests of the homeless in the matter.
But even as we offer lukewarm praise for grudging change at the city level, we’re alarmed by the numbers Anita Hofschneider reported Tuesday from Gov. David Ige’s budget proposal-in-progress. The draft funding requests from his Department of Budget and Finance would do little to address shortages in affordable housing and available public housing units. Lack of such housing is among the most significant drivers of homelessness in Hawaii.
For the second consecutive budget year, the governor seems prepared to ask for far less than is needed to make a dent in areas that helped to create the statewide emergency in homelessness that he declared two months ago. For instance, the department plans to request a total of $31 million to repair and renovate public housing.
That might seem like a lot of money. But it’s more than $120 million short of what the state Housing Authority requested in the last legislative session to begin digging out of a much larger backlog of deferred maintenance.
If Honolulu and the state overall are to make real, significant progress in addressing the homelessness emergency hanging over Hawaii, tepid aspirations simply won’t do.
The governor also appears prepared to request $75 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes development of low-income rental housing. That’s $25 million less than the governor requested last year, when the Legislature ultimately appropriated only $40 million.
To put that in context: An appropriation of $50 million would pay for an estimated 400 new units. A study last year by the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp. estimated that Hawaii needs more than 20,000 new affordable housing units over the next five years.
To be fair, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness recently announced the conversion, now underway, of a 5,000-square-foot shed in Kakaako to a temporary shelter that will hold up to 60 people at a time, and potentially as many as 240 people a year. And the City of Honolulu recently opened a shelter site on Sand Island that will serve up to 90 people at a time.
Developments such as the Kakaako and Sand Island shelters might seem encouraging. But given the much broader need for affordable housing, a homeless head count on Oahu of nearly 5,000 at the beginning of this year, and federal data that show Hawaii has the worst rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, they seem, instead, sadly inadequate.
As the former state Senate Ways and Means chairman, Ige has deep knowledge of the state budget process and an insider’s appreciation for what is possible in any given year. But purely from a negotiating point of view, it would seem to make sense to open with funding requests on affordable housing and public housing repair that are appropriate to the size of the challenge.
Giving ground later from a higher beginning point might be more likely to help the state climb further up this considerable mountain in 2016 than beginning somewhere in the foothills.
The governor’s proposed budget is still in development, and there is time to expand his requests into something more likely to provide for progress. If Honolulu and the state overall are to make real, significant progress in addressing the homelessness emergency hanging over Hawaii, tepid aspirations simply won’t do.
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