James Koshiba has ambitious goals to reduce the number of people living on the streets.

James Koshiba was a 41-year-old nonprofit leader with no experience working on homelessness, when he packed a small bag of clothes and food and pitched a tent in a sprawling homeless encampment in urban Honolulu.  

It was the summer of 2015, and the Kakaako encampment — which covered multiple blocks and housed nearly 200 people — was all over the news, a humanitarian crisis that Koshiba said was too big for him to ignore. 

Koshiba left his wallet and cell phone with a friend who had a nearby office. He didn’t tell anyone in the camp who he was or what he was trying to do. An elderly woman showed him how to pitch his tent. A neighbor in the camp offered him something to eat. He showered in the park and spent his days searching for shade and visiting a nearby Starbucks to use the bathroom.

James Koshiba, the new state homeless coordinator, has an ambitious set of goals for addressing persistent barriers to solving homelessness in Hawaii. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

He went in looking for a better understanding of homelessness. He found fear and suffering and also a remarkable measure of aloha, that overly commodified but deeply meaningful Hawaiian value that he had in one way or another been trying to cultivate throughout his career in community service. 

“It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for sure,” Koshiba said. “There were people who felt menacing and there were others who were not all there all the time. But there was also quite a bit of sharing and generosity on the street.”

It was a brief stay. He lasted less than a week before the summer heat and fights among newcomers to the camp persuaded him to leave.

But it was something of a turning point for Koshiba. The first of a series of experiences that led him a few months ago to a rather unexpected place: a corner office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol building where he now holds the title of state homeless coordinator. 

Koshiba is not the first homeless advocate to hold the position, which was created in the early 1990s to coordinate a patchwork of state and local efforts that seemed to be having little success in reducing the number of people living on the street. But he is perhaps the most outspoken activist to helm the office, having spent the last seven years working with homeless communities to try and shift prevailing narratives about one of Hawaii’s most pressing social issues.

Koshiba has ambitious plans. So does his boss, Gov. Josh Green, who vowed on the campaign trail to cut homelessness in half and eliminate chronic homelessness by 2030.

But nearly every Hawaii governor has made similarly ambitious pledges since the late 1980s, when public pressure began mounting for officials to do something about the panhandlers in Waikiki, the rows of blue tarps and tents on Leeward Oahu beaches and the people sleeping in doorways in Chinatown.

Koshiba is focused on creating more “deeply affordable” housing, championing alternative models like tiny home villages and eliminating some of the barriers that prevent people from getting into stable housing. 

The core of his strategy though goes back to that week in Kakaako and every experience he’s had working with homeless communities since: elevating the voices of homeless people and challenging public perceptions of who is homeless — and why. 

“We need to be breaking some of those (myths) down, not just for the sake of the humanity of people on the street,” Koshiba said. “Those misunderstandings and stereotypes are actually getting in the way of us solving homelessness.”

A Perennial Problem 

There’s often a sense among Hawaii residents faced with a new encampment of homeless people in their neighborhood or another row of tarps along the highway on their drive home that homelessness is worse than it has ever been. The reality is that homelessness in the islands rises and falls in slight waves, but it’s been a constant presence for decades. 

Estimates on the number of people without housing in Hawaii varied greatly in the 1990s, though newspapers from the time are filled with stories about politicians struggling with homeless encampments and families moving on the streets because of an ever-tightening housing market. 

“I think we’ve seen a loss of affordable housing across the islands,” said Laura Thielen, who is the executive director of Partners In Care and has been working on homelessness in Hawaii since the late 1990s. “Less and less affordable housing has been developed. I think it’s estimated that in order for us to catch up with the housing needs in Hawaii, we need like 10,000 units developed a year. We’re nowhere close to that.”

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the state started conducting annual point in time surveys, where volunteers fan out across the state — usually on a single day — to try and count exactly how many people are experiencing homelessness at a given time

Tents lined multiple streets in Kakaako in the summer of 2015, around the time James Koshiba spent a week sleeping in the encampment. (Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat/2015)

Over the years, efforts to increase shelter space and access to social services have also been accompanied by more punitive measures aimed at removing people who are homeless from public spaces. 

Long before former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell began pushing homeless sweeps as part of a policy dubbed “compassionate disruption,” Hawaii had begun appearing on the National Coalition for the Homeless’ annual list of “meanest” places for homeless people.

Hawaii was not always such an unfriendly place for people with nowhere to go, Koshiba says. 

Part of Koshiba’s inspiration for his work with homeless communities comes from the first person in his family ever to set foot on Hawaii’s shores. 

Koshiba’s great-great grandfather, Bunkichi Hotta, left Japan at the age of 15 to work on a plantation in Maui. Conditions on the plantation were harsh and Hotta ran away after only a few days, becoming a homeless teenager in a foreign land.

“Here’s my great grandpa, who checks off all the boxes for the least desirable demographic in society,” Koshiba said. “He’s homeless. He’s an immigrant. And he’s a teenage boy. He doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know the culture.”

It was 1890 — a time when many nations were implementing racist immigration policies. But on Maui, Hotta was quickly taken in by a Hawaiian-Portuguese family who sheltered him for a decade, until he was ready to go off and start his own family.

“If that kid had gotten off the boat anywhere else in the world, he probably wouldn’t have made it,” Koshiba said. “And so that to me is what’s special about Hawaii. That is the embodiment of a culture of aloha. We still have that spirit and that instinct. But the way we are treating houseless folks is not in line with that.”

A Big Task

Koshiba’s office is located in the back corner of the governor’s administrative offices, a cavernous space in the Capitol building that, a few weeks after Green took office, had only a few workers shuffling around empty cubicles and cardboard boxes.

In late January, Koshiba was still working to make the office his own. The calendar on the wall, still open to December, was left by his predecessor. As were the binders on the bookshelf and the box on the floor overflowing with legislative rule books. The laptop and a ti leaf lei hanging on the wall are the only belongings that were his, Koshiba said. 

None of the people who worked for Scott Morishige, the outgoing state homeless coordinator, opted to stay so Koshiba was also in the process of creating job postings for the four people he has the budget to hire — job postings that now all prioritize lived experience with homelessness. 

He was also tackling the significant learning curve of working in government for the first time, preparing for a busy legislative season, and figuring out all the things his office is tasked with. Like answering complaints from frustrated residents who call their state lawmaker or the governor’s office, before getting transferred to Koshiba.

“Many of these people have called this office before. And I have to explain to them that I’m new. And they’ll say, ‘well, in the past we would call and there would be an enforcement shortly after,’” Koshiba said. 

Koshiba said he doesn’t know if the enforcement actions were arranged by his office, but he thinks that people are often calling with the expectation that he will have homeless people moved. Which is not what he says he’s there for. 

He takes as many of these calls personally as he can. Partially because there isn’t anyone else in his office yet to take them, and partially because each call is an opportunity to have a conversation about homelessness that is different from the conversations that have been happening. 

“So what I’ll say is, ‘you know, I could do what you’re asking me to do, I could try to get an enforcement crew down there to move people out,’” Koshiba said. “’But I want to share with you a couple things that you may not know. One is that when people are swept, it actually makes it harder for them to get off the street.’”

Koshiba says that relocating homeless people and enforcement actions like sweeps are sometimes necessary. But sweeps can be extremely disruptive. Homeless people can lose vital documents that they need to qualify for housing. When homeless people move locations, they may lose contact with case workers.

And when people are moved against their will, chances are they will eventually return and they’ll be in worse shape, physically, mentally, emotionally, and in terms of their preparedness to leave the street. 

Koshiba says he’s been surprised at generally how receptive the people calling his office to complain have been about engaging in these unexpected conversations. 

“Even people that are angry and really just want people out of the park across the street from where they live know that’s not a solution to homelessness,” Koshiba said. “They know that’s not the permanent solution.”

City and County workers assist in loading homeless belongings at Moiliili Neighborhood park.
City and County workers assist in loading homeless belongings at Moiliili Neighborhood Park. Sweeps can be an extremely destabilizing force to the fragile sense of community and safety that homeless people can create, Koshiba said. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Persistent Myths About Homelessness

So what exactly is at the root of Hawaii’s constant homeless crisis? Why, despite decades of emergency proclamations, political pushes and hard work from nonprofit groups, does Hawaii still have one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the nation? 

“I think it’s the same thing you hear over and over again: the lack of affordable housing and low wages,” said Anna Pruitt, a faculty affiliate in the department of psychology at the University of Hawaii Manoa who has been conducting research on homelessness and housing in Hawaii for more than a decade. 

Pruitt says it’s important to point out that although the numbers have remained high, the state has actually made significant progress in getting people housed. The drops in veteran and family homelessness in recent years have been particularly significant. The problem is that as soon as someone is taken off the street, another person takes their place. 

In 2020, Pruitt and a fellow researcher at UH analyzed several years worth of data from the point in time counts, and what they found was that the unsheltered population in Honolulu County is “largely due to a steady influx of newly homeless individuals.” 

That influx isn’t people moving to Hawaii and ending up homeless — yes, that happens, but it’s a relatively minor contributor to the state’s homeless problem, Pruitt said. The problem is the steady stream of Hawaii residents losing housing. Indeed, more than a third of unsheltered homeless people in Hawaii are Native Hawaiian. 

Following close behind the housing crisis is the state’s dearth of mental health resources. In the late ’70s and early ’80s there was a national push to move away from incarcerating people with mental health problems. Today, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that there are few treatment options available for people who need mental health services, said Thielen of Partners in Care.

“I think it’s very hard for our community to see someone who’s obviously not well just being left on the streets, but there are very few options for that person,” Thielen said.

Koshiba has an ambitious set of five goals for addressing homelessness. He wants his office to support the creation of more affordable housing, test nontraditional models for very low-cost housing like kauhale or tiny house villages, create a range of spaces to support people with serious mental and behavioral health needs, and work to remove some of the obstacles along the people’s journey from street to home. His final goal might be the hardest of them all.

“This might sound overly simplistic, but it is to call everybody back to community and aloha,” Koshiba said. “The message maybe needs to be, ‘NIMBYism creates homelessness.’ That can’t be acceptable anymore. We have to be saying ‘Where in my backyard?’ Or ‘yes, in my backyard.’ And if we’re not willing to do that, then we need to accept that this this problem will go on forever.”

A Call To Action

When residents call Koshiba’s office to complain about homeless people in their community, Koshiba tries to engage them in conversations about the root causes of homelessness in Hawaii. Then he tries to persuade callers to channel their anger and frustration into action. Like attending neighborhood board meetings and calling their City Council members and state lawmakers to push for more affordable housing and better mental health resources in every community. 

Koshiba is trying to jumpstart these conversations with residents, lawmakers, local and state officials. But the most successful interactions, he believes, are the ones where homeless people speak for themselves. 

After he broke camp in Kakaako, Koshiba kept returning to maintain relationships with the homeless people he met during his stay. Then he was introduced to Twinkle Borge, the leader of what at the time was the largest self-organized homeless encampment in the state. 

He started working with self-organized homeless communities in Kakaako and Waimanalo, introducing homeless leaders to people within his network of nonprofit leaders and activists. 

When the state began seriously talking about evicting the community at the Waianae Boat Harbor in 2018, Koshiba helped organize significant public pushback against the threat.

The experience led him to help found Hui Aloha, an organization that bills itself as a movement to “call all of us back to aloha.” More practically, it helps homeless communities organize themselves, improve relationships with neighboring residents and speak more publicly about their experiences.

Twinkle Borge and James Pakele announce the purchase of 5 acres of agriculture land located near Waianae Valley Road.
Twinkle Borge and James Pakele announce the purchase of 5 acres of agriculture land located near Waianae Valley Road in 2019. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Hui Aloha also supported Borge’s successful efforts to form a nonprofit and purchase land to create a more stable community — an effort that is serving as inspiration for the push to create more kauhale or tiny home villages across the state. 

Lindsay Pacheco, a member of Hui Aloha who was one of the leaders of a self-organized homeless community in Kakaako in 2019, says she’s learned a lot from Koshiba about how to build relationships.

“How to connect with people and how to look at things and how to approach situations,” Pacheco said. “How to come from a place of aloha.”

Pacheco and other members of Hui Aloha formed the Oahu Lived Experience Council last year, a group that aims to advise policymakers and educate the public about the realities of homelessness in the islands.

The answer to NIMBYism, Koshiba says, is to bring the voices of people who are — or have experienced — homelessness to every place where conversations about homelessness are happening.

“That is the thing that opens people’s hearts and minds,” Koshiba said.

This call back to aloha, the idea that a sense of shared humanity and caring for one another will be the secret ingredient to solving one of the most divisive problems in Hawaii may come across as unbridled optimism. Koshiba says that’s not the word he’d use.

“I think it’s probably more accurately described as hopeful than optimistic. Because I think this is a test for our community,” Koshiba said. The government has tools and resources, but it can’t solve homelessness on its own. It’s going to take a community effort.

“That is really what aloha is, it’s a sense of our interconnectedness … That’s where my hopefulness comes from.”

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