Every year, charities and state agencies spend millions of dollars on our homeless problem, with little improvement.

Official statistics confirm this. Gov. David Ige might be proud of placing 7,392 people into permanent housing last year, but nearly 7,000 people became homeless in that time, replacing them on the street. 

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park with tents.
Many programs treat the symptoms of homelessness instead of tackling the causes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Many social services help homeless people. The River of Life Mission provides food. The John A. Burns School of Medicine operates a mobile health clinic. The Institute for Human Services offers shelter and employment, among other services. These are only three of many programs that provide services for homeless people in Hawaii.

However, these programs don’t do much to prevent homelessness. They only treat its symptoms.

Indeed, even the most ambitious programs, like the Institute for Human Services, are intended to “end the cycle of homelessness.”

While ending the cycle is laudable, we should be more ambitious. Why not stop the cycle before it starts?

Expanding The Renter Safety Net

A simple way to prevent homelessness is to expand the safety net for renters.

During a trapeze performance, a literal safety net is set up below the performers. Those who fall are caught in the net, avoiding horrific injury.

A renter safety net operates the same way. Most people will not need the safety net, yet it catches those who fall on hard times.

In Hawaii, many families are one death or illness away from homelessness. Imagine mom, dad and two children. Dad gets sick and has to quit his job. Mom picks up more shifts at work, but the family can’t afford dad’s health care, the monthly rent and food for their children. They skip rent and move into their minivan. The cycle of homelessness has started.

This story is tragic, but all too common.

The Aloha United Way recently commissioned a report, “ALICE: A Study of Financial Hardship in Hawaii.” ALICE families have jobs but limited savings and their incomes aren’t enough to cover a basic household budget that includes “housing, child care, food, transportation and health care.” More than a third of Hawaii families fall into this category.

These people aren’t loafers. They work hard but still don’t earn enough to cover their bills and build savings. They’re people you encounter every day: “child care providers, retail salespersons, waitstaff, cashiers, administrative assistants, janitors, housekeepers, landscapers, teaching assistants, mechanics, restaurant cooks and more.”

Norm Baker, chief operating officer of Aloha United Way, says that during hard times, “ALICE families don’t have sufficient earnings to pay all their bills. At a certain point, some have to choose between having a roof over their head or food in their kids’ mouths. That’s when they end up living in the car or at the beach.”

The Lasting Impact of Temporary Adversity

Even a short stint of homelessness can have lasting effects. That’s why prevention is so important.

Karen Tan, the president and CEO of Child and Family Service, notes that homelessness has an incredible impact on families, especially children, who face “an increased risk of health issues and are often lacking in adequate medical and dental care when they are homeless.”

In addition to the medical and dental impacts, the psychological trauma of homelessness “impacts the children’s brain development and can result in long-term impact on their mental health.” This increases their need for mental health counseling and support in the future. It also impairs their educational performance.

Person sleeps along King Street out of the rain. Homeless
Homelessness is particularly tough on children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Fortunately, we can prevent these harms in many cases.

If renters have access to emergency funds, they can remain in their homes through hard times.

Right now, renters have limited options. When adversity strikes, some will exhaust savings, but those savings can only be emptied once. As long as they’re in the ALICE category, they won’t be able to restore their savings. Others might reach out to extended family for assistance. But money isn’t always available. Payday loans might work for quick cash, but these predatory loans have steep costs.

The state of Hawaii used to fund a rent assistance program, but never enough to prevent wait lists from filling with needy families. This session, Senate Bill 2952 will determine whether the rent assistance program receives funding. Dollar for dollar, this program is one of the most efficient ways to prevent homelessness. It deserves funding.

If the state won’t act, our financial sector should step up and make short-term, emergency credit more accessible for the least well-off.

Banks could work with property managers to identify and reach out to at-risk renters, extending a short-term, interest-free line of credit for those who face adversity. Property managers have an incentive to assist renters in these cases; they just don’t have the resources. The banks are in a position to assist.

Will these loans turn a profit? No. Will they prevent homelessness? Yes.

You’ll rarely find homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks surrounding our three largest bank headquarters: First Hawaiian Bank, Bank of Hawaii, and American Savings Bank. Our financial institutions should commit not only to keeping their city blocks clear; they should also leverage their financial resources to end homelessness before it starts.

Of course, from an electoral or philanthropic point of view, it’s not terribly sexy to issue loans or support a renter-assistance fund. But that’s the rub of prevention. It doesn’t come with exciting photo opportunities and volunteer events.

You won’t ever see the families that remain housed after receiving emergency assistance. That’s the point. They’re still at home, protected by a roof and walls.

They’ve fallen from the bar, but they never reach the ground. The safety net holds. The show goes on.

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