Homelessness is an increasingly unsolvable problem in Hawaii, and that is not surprising. Money, land and multiple services have been made available for about 10,000 homeless with only about 1,000 people benefiting so far. What’s the problem?

It’s the same housing problem we’ve tried to solve for the last 96 years since Congress in 1920 made a commitment to house the increasingly landless and homeless Hawaiian community after they had been displaced from lands they’d occupied for generations. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 goal was passed to help Native Hawaiians reconnect to the land and improve their economic situations by leasing homesteads on which they can live and farm.

But since its inception, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has been woefully underfunded. For decades, it was the Legislature’s option whether to give DHHL any money at all.

DHHL beneficiaries take part in a 2015 meeting on proposed changes to the department's administrative rules. The changes refined who is able to qualify for the Hawaiian Home Lands program, how vacant lands for lease can be transferred and whether lots could be made available to support a subsistence lifestyle.
DHHL beneficiaries take part in a 2015 meeting on proposed changes to the department’s administrative rules. The changes refined who is able to qualify for the Hawaiian Home Lands program, how vacant lands for lease can be transferred and whether lots could be made available to support a subsistence lifestyle. DHHL

Seeing the constant funding dilemma, delegates to the 1978 Constitutional Convention believed the state Constitution should require the Legislature to fully fund DHHL. Hawaii voters agreed, and the Hawaii Constitution now explicitly mandates that the Legislature “shall make sufficient sums available” for DHHL’s mission to provide Native Hawaiians with homesteads, including its administrative and operating budget, by appropriating funds to DHHL via the legislative budgeting process.

Yet despite this clear, unambiguous constitutional mandate, the Legislature continued to inadequately fund DHHL, even giving zero dollars in fiscal years 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Funding resumed several years ago, but at $9.6 million per fiscal year, it’s been nowhere near “sufficient” for what DHHL actually needs. This has forced DHHL to dip into other funds, including general lease revenues, just to get by.

The result of this chronic underfunding? Waiting lists for homestead lots are hundreds of pages long, with 44,217 applications pending last June, and not counting the thousands who have already died and have been removed from the waiting list. Meanwhile, like the homeless of Hawaii, our Native Hawaiians are underrepresented in educational attainment (an estimated 10 percent have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 20 percent of the general population).

They are also underrepresented in homeownership (fewer owners and more renters compared to statewide levels), with more families living in poverty (11 percent, as opposed to 7 percent of families among the general population). Diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and heart disease are significantly more prevalent among Native Hawaiians than the rest of the population. Moreover, Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in the corrections system and constitute a disproportionately high percentage of re-offenders, not to mention they are the largest local group of homeless living on our streets and beaches.

Waiting lists for homestead lots are hundreds of pages long, with 44,217 applications pending last June, and not counting the thousands who have already died and have been removed from the waiting list.

The Legislature’s constitutional obligation to sufficiently fund DHHL’s administrative and operating budget — determined to be over $28 million for fiscal year 2016, a figure uncontested by the state at trial — was recently confirmed by Circuit Court Judge Jeannette Castagnetti in Nelson v. DHHL. This lawsuit dates back to 2007, when Native Hawaiian beneficiaries sued DHHL and other entities over the lack of sufficient legislative funding.

But in its disregard of the Hawaiians’ plight, the Legislature disagreed with the judge’s ruling and argued its role and status as a co-equal branch of government gives it the exclusive right to determine how much to fund DHHL in a given year. As a result, the judge changed one sentence in her ruling and clarified that the court was not ordering the Legislature to fund DHHL in any specific dollar amount, but that the $9.6 million originally set aside for DHHL in fiscal year 2016 was “not sufficient” — and so the state “must comply with its constitutional duty to make sufficient sums available” to DHHL for its administrative and operating budget this fiscal year.

Judge Castagnetti did right by DHHL and Native Hawaiians in recognizing the Legislature’s constitutional obligation. Ultimately and at the urging of the governor, the Legislature appropriated more funds to DHHL, but not the court-ordered $28 million per year.

So the battle goes on, while some legislators make the Nelson case more about competing for power with the judiciary than of remembering their duty as humble public servants to uphold the state Constitution. As long as the Legislature bemoans the plight of the homeless in Hawaii while not fully funding our landless Native Hawaiian population, the 96-year-old Department of Hawaiian Homes Act will be just another broken promise.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.