A new report has found that even though Maui County and the nonprofits it funds to provide social services have for years wanted to end homelessness, no one has a clear plan for how to do that.

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Maui’s Cost of Government Commission, a nine-member group tasked with looking for ways to make the county government more effective, recently released a 559-page report looking at ways Maui could end homelessness and ensure that anyone who loses their housing can get into a shelter.

Starting in the summer of 2020, several of the group’s members spent months reviewing hours of government meetings and interviewing county, nonprofit and police officials. Among their key findings: despite sharing a common goal that one day, no Maui residents will have to live on the street, there’s “persistent disagreement” among the organizations working to help them, and no one has a comprehensive plan on how to do that work either.

Even after two years worth of meetings and discussions among government and nonprofit leaders, there’s been “little progress in the eyes of many,” the report said. It urged the county to hire an expert to put together a roadmap, similar to what the county did recently when it paid a consultant to come up with ways that Maui could create 5,000 more affordable housing units.

“It became pretty clear pretty fast that no one in the county government and major nonprofits had any kind of a plan to end homelessness, even though they all agree that’s the goal — and it’s probably achievable,” said Michael Williams, president of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, who chairs the commission and worked on the report. “There’s no coordination.”

A photograph of shelters on Maui.
Rents have soared in recent years, putting more Maui families at risk of losing their homes. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In a statement, Lori Tsuhako, director of the county’s housing department, said that the county follows federal and state guidelines in its efforts to address homelessness.

“We appreciate the compassion and concern displayed by the Maui County Commission on the Cost of Government,” Tsuhako said. “But in this specific situation, creating a parallel system of care, that is not aligned with federal and state policy, is both costly and unnecessary.”

Maui, like many communities across the continental U.S., has watched in recent decades as the presence of people living on streets has become increasingly visible. The phenomenon, experts say, can be blamed on decades of policy decisions and the economic consequences that followed: slashing funding for federal housing programs, the lack of investment in mental and physical health care, mass incarceration, soaring housing prices and stagnant wages for the working class.

Maui also lacks enough services to care for people experiencing mental health crises, and for those struggling with substance abuse, it can sometimes take weeks to get into treatment.

And, like other communities in Hawaii, it’s simply become harder to afford housing. When accounting for inflation, Maui’s typical household income has “stayed basically constant” since 2005, according to a recent report by the Maui Economic Development Board. Yet in the last two years alone, the typical sales price of a home has shot up roughly $380,000 — to around $1.15 million, according to real estate data.

No one knows exactly how many people live on the streets, in cars or in tents on Maui, although the number “may well have increased” in recent years, the report said.

What is clear, however, is that many of those people are falling through the cracks of Maui’s overwhelmed social safety net. Williams, who put together the report, said that there are probably fewer than 2,000 people without housing on any given day, and that the number is likely closer to 1,000 — a number that the community, in theory, should be able to help.

But there are only around 360 beds available in shelters to serve them, according to the state. That means if everyone were to seek shelter at the same time, there simply wouldn’t be enough room. And once they’re ready to move somewhere long term, there’s also a shortage of affordable rentals, and the lack of social workers, accessible bus systems and other services to help them stay housed.

“The main problem is just lack of units to put these people in, coupled with not having enough mental health workers and social workers to help them make the transition,” Williams said.

There’s a financial argument to increasing funding for programs that help people stay in safe and stable housing. Paying for apartments, proponents say, makes more sense than footing the bill for emergency room visits, police, jails and the costs to hire crews to clear camps.

Right now, the county has its own staff dedicated to overseeing programs that help people who fall out of housing, but it mostly relies on nonprofits to run shelters and provide other social services, according to the report. Despite proposing a record $1 billion county budget, the report said the county administration didn’t propose any new money for the department during the next budget year.

In the current budget year, which ends in June, the county also earmarked about $3.5 million for grants to local nonprofits; during the next budget year, which starts in July, the county administration proposed spending $2.7 million, according to the report.

The report’s main suggestion: Use county dollars to hire an expert to come up with a plan to end homelessness, similar to how the county just spent roughly $300,000 on a consultant to examine ways to build more affordable housing. Cities across the U.S. spanning from Asheville to Austin to San Diego have tapped outside experts to look for ways to help the growing number of people struggling to stay housed.

“There is no clear plan to fill these gaps,” the report said. “And it is apparent that the County Homeless Division does not have the necessary staff, expertise, and resources to develop the type of comprehensive plan that is so desperately needed.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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