Homeless people face a number of barriers to getting the help, including a dearth of available housing and a safety net system that isn’t always designed to meet their needs.

When police officers and sanitation workers arrived to clear a homeless encampment in Waianae last week, they were greeted by frustrated community members who had a pointed message for them: There’s nowhere for these people to go. 

“We already knew there was no beds and no shelters available,” said Lena Spain Suzuki, a Westside resident and member of the Kupuna Council, a local volunteer group that had been working for months to find permanent housing for multiple elderly Native Hawaiians living there. 

A staple of public discourse about homelessness in Hawaii is the idea that many people living in beach parks and sidewalk encampments are “service resistant” and refuse to accept the help they need. Indeed, pushing homeless people into service programs was frequently touted as a goal of homeless sweeps under former-Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s policy of “compassionate disruption.”

In reality, there are numerous barriers that homeless people face in getting help with everything from housing to routine medical care and treatment options for mental health and substance abuse. 

Tents and other belongings along Iwilei Road near the Salvation Army building.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi vowed on the campaign trail to end the policy of “compassionate disruption” preferred by his predecessor but sanitation enforcements have continued under his administration. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“Our experience is that we don’t see as many people being treatment resistant or service resistant, we actually feel that oftentimes it’s the system or the services that are participant resistant,” said Heather Lusk, head of the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and chair of Partners in Care, a coalition of several dozen homeless service providers on Oahu.

Current challenges include a limited housing pool, high staff turnover among homeless service providers, and the very definition of chronic homelessness itself. 

“While there are some folks that may not want the services available, more often we find folks that desperately want services, and there’s just not enough,” Lusk said.

Not Enough Beds 

The most basic challenge in Hawaii is a scarcity of housing. There are not enough permanent affordable housing options, emergency shelter beds or alternative housing options for people who have animals or nontraditional family structures.

On the day of the Waianae sweep there were an estimated 24 open shelter beds on Oahu, the majority of them located at a men’s shelter in urban Honolulu. Suzuki said there were at least 50 people living in the Waianae encampment alone.

Hawaii also lacks a central system for getting people into shelters. If someone is living on the streets and wants to get into an emergency shelter, they — or an outreach worker — need to call or go in person to each facility to see who might have an opening, Lusk said. 

Partners in Care posts a list of shelter vacancies on Oahu each day on its website, but the numbers fluctuate frequently and by the time people get to a shelter there may no longer be an opening.

“If I’m on the street right now and I need shelter, I’m going to have to reach out or maybe go to each of the facilities to see who might have an opening,” Lusk said. “Whereas in a lot of other communities, they have this coordinated so that there’s one number to call or one place to go.”

Earlier this month, Lusk’s team was working with a homeless person with mobility challenges who wanted to get into a shelter. They called around and found a program with an opening, but it took several hours to coordinate getting appropriate transportation to the shelter. By the time the homeless person arrived at the shelter, the open spot was gone. 

“That actually hurt the rapport between the outreach worker and this person,” Lusk said. 

Psychiatrist Dr. Chad Koyanagi gives Cynthia an injection in Maunakea Marketplace. Dr. Koyanagi worked with IHS Outreach Navigation Coordinator David Warman and Shona Cobb to track down patients that needed medicine.
Dr. Chad Koyanagi is the state’s only street psychiatrist. Homeless service providers say more needs to be done to fill gaps in mental health care. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Getting into a service of any kind on demand is unrealistic in many ways, Lusk said, but Hawaii needs a system that is more nimble and coordinated. Particularly because the more barriers a person faces in getting help, the more likely they are to stop trying to get assistance in the future. 

Multiple homeless service providers — and people who are currently or formerly homeless — point to a lack of trust as being a major barrier to getting people on a pathway to permanent housing. 

“A lot of people want the help but if you’re not going to follow through, they just give up. They don’t want nothing to do with anybody,” said Kaulana Paishon, a resident of Puuhonua O Waianae, an alternative housing community being developed by leaders of the self-organized homeless community at the Waianae Boat Harbor.  “It’s all about communication. You need that relationship with that person for them to believe you.”

Adding to the challenge of building relationships is that many homeless service providers are struggling to recruit and retain staff — a problem that has been exacerbated by the stress the pandemic has caused frontline workers and wage increases in other industries that make it hard for nonprofits to compete, said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, the state’s largest emergency shelter provider. 

Partners in Care is organizing a job fair later in March to try and help service providers with hiring, but in the meantime the number of vacancies is making things harder for workers — and the people they are trying to help. 

“If you have four different outreach workers coming to you over the course of a few months and that last one promised that they were going to help you with housing and then now you have another one asking you the same questions, you just feel like it’s just never going to happen,” Mitchell said. “They really lose hope.”

A Long Road To Permanent Housing

If getting into an emergency shelter can be challenging, the process for obtaining more permanent housing is even more arduous.

It’s also a process that isn’t always clearly explained to people who are trying to qualify for housing said Kimberly Nabarro, a parent partner at Epic Ohana who was homeless herself for several years.

Part of what’s needed is more thorough training for people who work with homeless communities so that everyone can explain and understand the various pathways to housing and how each form, survey, waiting list or requirement moves people toward their final goal: getting a stable home, Nabarro said.

The new state homeless coordinator, James Koshiba, has made “clearing obstacles on the pathway from street to home” one of his top priorities.

One way to do that Koshiba says is to create more types housing of all types — from kauhale style communal villages to other forms of deeply affordable housing.

But there are other, smaller challenges to tackle. As an example, Koshiba points to the process of proving someone is chronically homeless — a distinction that would possibly move someone up on the priority list for housing or qualify them for additional programs.

“There’s a very specific legal definition of what qualifies as chronically homeless,” Koshiba said in an interview last month.

To be deemed chronically homeless, someone needs to be verified has having been homeless consecutively for 12 months or been homeless on at least four separate occasions in the last three years. They also need to have a diagnosed physical disability, mental illness or addiction.

“Not only do many people on the street not meet the legal definition, but there’s also people that meet the legal definition, but then struggle to get or maintain the documentation to prove that,” Koshiba said. “And so you know, for all these programs that prioritize folks who are chronically homeless, we’re leaving out a big chunk of the folks that are on the street.”

Koshiba said that’s an example of the need to create new pathways that are flexible, so that more people can move from street to home “without making them jump through multiple hoops in order to try to get there.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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