Hawaii Homelessness

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Within the last decade, Hawaii’s homeless situation has become one of the top challenges facing state and county governments. Residents and visitors complain to officials about homeless camps in parks and beaches, and about homeless persons walking streets, scouring trash cans and Dumpsters, asking for handouts, and frequenting stores and shopping malls.

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Every governor since Linda Lingle in 2004 has wrestled with this issue but until 2016 not enough was done to help solve it despite the efforts statewide by dozens of agencies and volunteer groups.


Homelessness is a government issue, a business issue, a public-health issue, a public-safety issue, a civil-liberties issue and a social-justice issue. There are a number of proposed solutions, and many groups are actively involved in helping those in need, but as yet no comprehensive approach to alleviating has been embraced in a large-scale fashion.

Social-service and government agencies assisting the homeless in Hawaii have limited resources to address what many call a crisis. Government leaders, meanwhile, have largely implemented only short-term fixes that essentially move homeless populations from one locale to another but do not address the complex root causes of homelessness.

In the meantime, Hawaii’s growing population has been noticed by visitors to the islands. Tourists have posted comments to online travel sites warning that homeless people have been seen at beaches and near hotels. A March 1, 2010, posting stated, “I really cannot fathom visiting Hawaii again. The homeless, stench of homeless and rampant crime from […] gangs have totally turned me off to this once beautiful [place].”

In response, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, the HTA’s lead marketing contractor, and others involved in promoting the state’s visitor industry have sought help from government.

One significant government action, the city’s night closure of Honolulu’s Ala Moana Beach Park in March 2006, forced more than 200 homeless people to live and sleep elsewhere. At the time, the administration of Mayor Mufi Hannemann announced an alternative location for the homeless. But the location was temporary and located next to the headquarters of the Honolulu Police Department — the same law enforcement officers who kicked the homeless out of the park.

Honolulu’s response was welcomed by many residents and community leaders but condemned by homeless advocates, including national groups. In July 2009, for example, the nonprofit National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty ranked Honolulu the No. 8 “meanest city” in the United States when it came to criminalizing homeless people. The report, which was based on factors such as a city’s general political climate toward the homeless and enforcement of anti-homeless laws, placed Honolulu within the ranks of much larger “mean” cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Causes of Hawaii Homelessness

A 2009 status report on hunger and homelessness in 27 American cities identified major causes and reasons for homelessness. They include lack of employment, lack of affordable health care and mental-health services, psychological disorder and physical disability, and substance abuse. Other causes include domestic abuse, lack of affordable housing, mortgage foreclosures, and release from prison.

Honolulu was not among the cities surveyed in the 2009 status report, which was conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And, though the cities that were surveyed ranged considerably in size and location, the report’s authors cautioned that their conclusions “should not be interpreted as a national report on hunger and homelessness.”

Still, the national conclusions echo recent research conducted in Hawaii. A 2004 state government plan to end homelessness in Hawaii said homeless people in Hawaii are homeless for a variety of reasons. Homeless individuals interviewed for the plan said the top reasons were “economic, substance abuse and domestic situations.” Additionally, the number of “hidden” homeless more than doubled between 1993 and 2003, largely because of an expensive and “very tight housing market.”

There are other parallels with homelessness in mainland cities.

“Past housing history and criminal history often prevent individuals from attaining housing,” the 2004 plan said. “They are often unable to enter public housing if they have any former debts or have been convicted of a crime. This results in individuals remaining on the streets where the potential for more crime is increased. … Landlords often are hesitant to rent to [poor] tenants and homeless individuals due to the possibility of property damage beyond the security deposit. Landlords with past bad experiences find themselves financially responsible for much of the damage made by tenants, which discourages them from participating in future rental assistance programs.”

Urban myth has it that some mainland states give homeless people one-way airline tickets to Hawaii to reduce their homeless populations, but there is scant evidence that that is accurate. In fact, the 2004 study reported that 40 percent of Hawaii’s homeless had lived in the state their entire life. More than half were lifetime residents or people who lived in Hawaii a minimum of 20 years. Only 3.3 percent of the homeless had lived in Hawaii for one year or less, while 37 percent of the total homeless population identified themselves as Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian — roughly double the percentage of Hawaiians living in the state.

Hawaii Homeless Population

In Hawaii, homelessness does not evenly cut across age, gender, racial and ethnic backgrounds, or socioeconomic status. There are certain groups more prone to homelessness and others less at risk.

The Homeless Utilization Report 2010, prepared by the prepared by the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii and the Homeless Programs Office of the Hawaii State Department of Human Services, found that 13,886 people experienced homelessness and received services at some point during between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010 — an increase of 3 percent.

The City and County of Honolulu served 9,781 homeless clients and Hawaii County served 1,489 — an increase of 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from the previous fiscal period. The numbers declined by 6 percent for Maui County, however, and 7 percent for Kauai County, falling to 1,991 and 625, respectively.

While acknowledging that the number of beds in emergency shelters has doubled and transitional housing units have increased by 55 percent over the past four years, the authors of the report state, “Since the first Homeless Service Utilization Report was issued in 2006, the need for homeless services in the state has continued to grow, exacerbated by a declining and unstable economy.”

Definitions of Homelessness

A 2006 study on “hidden” homeless and at-risk households commissioned by the state found that, “Across the [s]tate, housing problems associated with homelessness are more likely to affect persons who are younger, non-Asian, relatively recent arrivals to our state, and persons with fewer economic resources. The head of an at-risk household was much more likely than the general population … to be less than 35 years of age and much less likely to be over 60. Both hidden homeless and at-risk households included disproportionately higher numbers of Caucasians, Hawaiian and part-Hawaiians, and mixed non-Hawaiian people. Figures were much lower for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean groups. The at-risk group included a disproportionately higher number of individuals who had been in Hawaii less than 10 years.”

The study defined “at-risk” or “precariously housed” households as those households where occupants were three monthly paychecks away from homelessness. “Hidden homeless” households are households with more than one family sharing accommodations. “Adequately housed” households are those not classified as at-risk or hidden homeless. According to the study, of the 907,883 persons in Honolulu in 2006, more than 64,000 were hidden homeless and about 170,000 were at risk.

On Oahu, the study counted 24,755 persons at risk for homelessness in Honolulu, 17,970 in Central Oahu, 6,565 in Windward Oahu, 5,907 in Leeward Oahu, and 2,085 in East Honolulu.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority defines three categories of homelessness. “Unsheltered homeless” refers to families or individuals who sleep in cars, beaches, parks and streets not intended for accommodation. “Sheltered homeless” refers to families or individuals who do not have a regular, adequate nighttime residence and so use a public or privately operated temporary shelter. “At-risk homeless” refers to families or individuals who are being evicted or discharged from private dwellings or institutions, and who lack resources and support to obtain housing.

Other Homeless Counts

Citing federal data, state statistics report that Hawaii had 15,848 homeless people in 2006, an increase of about 800 people over 2005. Approximately 10,081 were on Oahu, 2,446 on Hawaii island, 2,526 on Maui, and 795 on Kauai. Two-thirds of the state’s homeless were classified as unsheltered.

A 2007 homeless “point in time” count commissioned by the City and County of Honolulu, was conducted on a single day between 6-10 p.m. The count, which adhered to federal guidelines on population counts, found 1,793 unsheltered homeless persons. Of those persons, 532 were on the Waianae Coast, 275 were in the area stretching from Wahiawa to the North Shore, and 259 were in downtown Honolulu.

Of the total point-in-time count, 111 (6.2 percent), were classified as “chronic” homeless, meaning unaccompanied individuals with a disabling condition who have either been homeless for a year or had four incidents of homelessness in the past three years. The highest number (34) were in downtown Honolulu.

In the same study, a total of 1,957 people were identified as sheltered homeless. Of that number, 1,203 were persons residing with families, 323 were in families with children, and 754 were single individuals. The downtown and Ewa areas accounted for 88 percent of all of Oahu’s sheltered homeless.

Combined, the 2007 point-in-time count found there were 3,750 people homeless on Oahu, a 28.2 percent increase over 2005.

A 2009 annual homeless report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the U.S. Congress found that on a single night in January 2008, the states with the highest concentrations of homeless people were Oregon (0.54 percent of the state’s population), Nevada (0.48 percent), Hawaii (0.47 percent, or 6,061 homeless people) and California (0.43 percent).

Also, a statewide homeless point-in-time count, released June 18, 2010, suggested that government agencies and service providers have had some success in moving homeless people into shelters.

While the count, mandated by the federal government as part of funding requirements for homelessness programs, is not comprehensive, there was an 8.2 percent increase in the number of homeless people in shelters. The number of unsheltered homeless dropped 8.6 percent, which officials attributed to an increase in the inventory of shelter space.

In a June 15 press release from the administration of Gov. Linda Lingle, statistics from the state’s Homeless Management Information System say the state’s total homeless count increased by less than 1 percent in fiscal year 2009, or by 52 people.

The system data show that 11,680 homeless people received outreach services, and 9,483 homeless people utilized shelter services. According to the state, 4,043 persons were moved into permanent housing through state homeless programs.

Hawaii Government and Homelessness

Homelessness is not confined to one region or island, and state lawmakers are proposing solutions. In the Hawaii State Legislature several bills and resolutions were introduced in the 2010 session to address the problem.

House Bill 2318, now Act 212, authorizes the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to establish a “housing first special fund” to implement housing programs and services for homeless individuals. The fund is “subject to the availability of existing funds or housing first special fund moneys.”

House Resolution 62, which was adopted, urges the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to establish “homeless safe zones” that provide basic sanitary facilities and a place to sleep. Among other recommendations, the resolution requests the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the city to make available public lands for the safe zones. HR 62 passed the House this session, but resolutions do not have the force of law. A similar measure, Senate Resolution 38, was held.

House Bill 2280 called for assisting the homeless in “reuniting with their families” by helping to pay for travel back to their home state. The bill, which was deferred, would set up a special fund supported by an increase in the conveyance tax on expensive homes, and a matching contribution from the counties.

Hawaii has a wide range of nonprofit organizations that offer shelter, shelter stipends, housing placement, emergency grants, health and substance abuse aide, job training and placement, legal advice, fundraising, and outreach. Many are government-funded.

Government involvement can be traced to 1935, when the Hawaii Territorial Legislature created the Hawaii Housing Authority to provide low-income groups with safe, sanitary housing.

State Government

In 1987, the Housing Finance and Development Corporation was created as part of the administration of Hawaii Gov. John D. Waihee III to promote affordable housing. In 1997 the corporation was merged with the Hawaii Housing Authority into a single housing agency called the Housing Community Development Corporation of Hawaii (HCDCH). In 2005, the HCDCH was split into the Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA), and the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation (HHFDC).

The housing authority currently is part of the Department of Human Services and the corporation is part of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The authority manages federal and state public housing programs, including for senior housing and Section 8, which is a federally assisted housing voucher system for low-income families and individuals. The housing corporation develops and finances low- and moderate-income housing projects and administers home-ownership programs.

According to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s 2006-2007 annual report, federal- and state-assisted public housing developments proved homes for “more than 14,000 residents statewide.” The authority is responsible for managing more than 5,300 units of federal public housing and 860 units of state public housing located in 81 developments On Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Molokai.

The state Legislature requires the housing authority’s Homeless Program Branch to compile an annual report detailing recent activities and outcomes. The 2007 status report, the most recent report listed on the authority’s Web page, can be viewed here.

The 2007 report said the housing authority received $5 million from the Legislature for homeless shelter repairs and services, and another $10 million for shelter repair and renovations.

Those shelters include the Next Step facility in Kakaako, an industrial warehouse converted into an emergency shelter. The facility houses up to 300 people, one-third of them under the age of 18. Another is Second Chance, a temporary emergency homeless shelter in Waianae that provides up to 200 people a place to store belongings during the day and to sleep at night.

The 2009 Homeless Service Utilization Report sheds light on how effective the state’s overall efforts have been in sheltering the homeless. “Since 2006, there has been a significant increase in funds and facilities for the homeless: 601 new units of transitional housing and 260 new emergency shelter beds are now available throughout Hawaii. This growth brought the state’s current inventory to a total of 1,188 units and 785 beds. Moreover, 110 new beds on Maui and 24 units of transitional housing and 26 units of supportive housing on Oahu are being developed.”

The report also found that the number of homeless “clients” using shelter programs grew from 5,535 in 2005 to 7,501 individuals in 2009, a 36 percent increase. The report concluded that actions taken by “elected officials, faith and philanthropic communities, and service providers have mitigated a growing crisis.” But the report also said housing gains are tempered by the downturn in the economy that has increased the homeless and at-risk populations: “[T]here continues to be the need to move homeless individuals and families into permanent housing.”

City Government

The Honolulu Department of Community Services was established in 1970 to “serve the physical and social needs of the people of Oahu so they may receive available services in an efficient, seamless and timely manner,” according to the department.

As stated on its Web page, the Department of Community Services administers “more than $50 million dollars” in federal, state, local and private grants “including child care programs; employment counseling and training; facilitation of low-income housing development including programs for the homeless; fair housing programs; programs for economically disadvantaged youth; rehabilitation loans; rental assistance; information, assistance and other services to the elderly; coordination of a volunteer service corps; and staffing of advisory boards on childcare, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and women.”

The Impact of Hawaii Homelessness

In 2004, Gov. Linda Lingle began calling the state’s attention to homelessness. The governor was motivated in part, she said, by the sight of a homeless person living beneath a tree on the grounds of the Queen’s Medical Center. Lingle saw the homeless person frequently, as the Hawaii governor’s home is located across the street from the hospital.

Lingle made her remarks about homelessness in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. At that time the state’s economy was strong, and Lingle’s argument was that a prosperous state should help those most in need. It was not simply altruism; the governor said homelessness affects property values, businesses and the visitor industry.

Lingle called for the construction of 17,000 affordable housing units in five years for people making 80 percent of the median income or less. The units would be built on lands identified across the state. The governor’s plan can be viewed here.

A plan to end chronic homelessness in Hawaii was also released that year. The plan, which was compiled by the Homeless Policy Academy and developed as a joint initiative of the federal Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, can be viewed here.

The 2004 study cited 2003 data that counted 6,029 total homeless people in the state. Among the report’s recommendations: improve data collection and research on homelessness, decrease barriers to housing and provide appropriate support services. “Homelessness is a solvable problem,” wrote the Homeless Policy Academy. “We have the expertise, creativity, and know-how in this community to create a comprehensive plan that addresses the magnitude and scale of the problem.”

Six years later, Hawaii’s homeless situation has worsened even as the state finds itself in a very different financial situation. Among the many negative aspects of a poor economy is that it produces even more homelessness. But plan members say some things were accomplished, including bringing together community stakeholders and creating a database to track homeless populations.

Lingle has also criticized Mayor Hannemann’s eviction of homeless from city parks beginning in 2006, saying Hannemann lacked compassion and failed to seriously address the homeless situation. Hannemann countered that Lingle has not followed through on her promise to deal with homelessness — something Hannemann said is a state problem, not a county problem. Lingle’s retort: It’s everyone’s problem.

The authors of the 2004 study on chronic homelessness agree. “We need to create effective collaboration in order to end homelessness. Every sector of our community should and can be involved,” the Homeless Policy Academy wrote. “The different sectors, including the tourism authorities, neighborhood boards, business associations, tenant associations, and others have all encountered the homeless. Through creation of a statewide homeless coalition, all islands can share their ideas, concerns, successes and failures.”

On March 31, the City and County of Honolulu enacted two laws that ban unpermitted enclosed tents and shopping carts in city parks. The new laws were approved less than one month after the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation closed all sections of Kapiolani Regional Park from midnight to 5 a.m. Prior to the new restriction the park was closed from 2-5 a.m.

Key Players

Addressing the issue of homelessness are a wide range of people and organizations. Top government officials and agencies at the state and county level are involved, as are nonprofit social-services agencies, outreach groups, and religious organizations that assist homeless people with food, health and shelter. Many representatives of these latter groups are also public advocates for finding ways to reduce and end homelessness.

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Hawaii Homelessness
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