Oct. 16 will mark two years since the state issued an emergency proclamation addressing homelessness.

At the time, elected leaders promised a comprehensive, cooperative approach to addressing one of our most persistent and vexing issues.

Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser explored the problem through an increased focus on exclusive reports and critical editorials.

We were all excited. Government and the private sector had finally come together to help those who needed it most.

No one had any illusions that solutions would quickly materialize to a decades-old problem. But the news the last couple of weeks has been a sobering indictment of our efforts over these last 24 months.

First, a letter from August surfaced saying that City and County of Honolulu missed deadlines to spend $10 million in federal housing funds and that the city returned $2 million to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Kona homeless temporary camp Camp Kikaha wide.
The temporary homeless camp Camp Kikaha, in Kona on the Big Island, could serve as a model for safe zones for homeless individuals around OahuCory Lum/Civil Beat

The loss came a year after the U.S. Inspector General’s  Office concluded the city spent $15,918,909 on property acquisitions and contracts that violated federal and city guidelines governing the use of Community Development Block Grant funds.

Then came a scathing report from the City Auditor that pointed out that the “city and state lack a strategic plan for homelessness that establishes specific timelines, performance benchmarks, allocation of resources, and other quantitative objects that can measure success. Opportunities to leverage or pool resources, or build on the other’s effort, are lost.”

The audit questioned the sustainability of the largest city-run homeless shelter, Hale Mauliola, with per-person costs ranging between $6,553 and $7,889 a year. It claimed the city’s Department of Community Services lacks the resources and staff to manage homeless contracts. And it revealed that the city and state both support Housing First programs but the city program costs 48 percent more.

Homeless Numbers Have Increased

Most recently, we watched as the state shuttered Kakaako Waterfront Park because at least 180 homeless individuals built a small city fronting the Pacific Ocean, rendering the area unsafe for public use. This decision came a little less than a year after an expensive push to clear a large homeless encampment out of Kakaako.

The encampment, which stole power and water, is not unlike those we see in Waianae, Keehi Lagoon, under Nimitz Highway, on the slopes of Diamond Head, around Lake Wilson and in bushes, brush and on streets all over Oahu.

After seven emergency proclamations and two years of talk about how hard we are working on homelessness, the results so far are unacceptable.

But we have to keep trying.

The homeless population on Oahu has increased every year since 2009 and we are sheltering 466 fewer individuals then we were in 2013.

Possible Legislative Solutions

This week, I introduced a package of proposals, Bill 87, Bill 88 and Resolution 17-277, that will be considered for the first time at the City Council meeting Wednesday.

The measures would expand sit-lie legislation islandwide while creating safe zones for homeless individuals around Oahu, like Camp Kikaha on Hawaii Island. Here, people can safely camp out and receive services while trying to secure permanent housing.

The city has invested more than $65 million in initiatives designed to reduce homelessness since the first sit-lie ban was adopted in 2014. Through my personal request, the City Council has appropriated $23 million in the last two years for the Community Revitalization Initiative that can be used to establish safe zones.

It is time to come together, again, and develop a comprehensive plan to reduce our homeless population.

Setting up sit-lie zones only in certain areas pushes the problem into other neighborhoods. It is a fact that we are running out of places for the homeless to go.

The public just saw their elected representatives come together and generate $2.4 billion in new tax revenue for our rail transit system in a matter of months.

So far, the needs of the poor and homeless have failed to focus and keep the attention of the private sector and government the way a train connecting centers of commerce has.

It is time to come together, again, and develop a comprehensive plan to reduce our homeless population.

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About the Author

  • Ernie Martin
    City Council Chair Emeritus Ernest Y. Martin has worked for the City and County of Honolulu since 1989 and currently represents Council District 2. Born in Honolulu and raised in Kukui Gardens, Martin is a graduate of William S. McKinley High School, Honolulu Community College, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the William S. Richardson School of Law.