Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note / Is Honolulu the eighth meanest city in the United States when it comes to homelessness? That’s one of the conclusions of a report released last week by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Homes Not Handcuffs” identifies 10 cities as the meanest of the mean, with Honolulu coming in right behind San Francisco (and Kalamazoo) and just ahead of Bradenton and Berkeley.

That last detail caught our attention. Berkeley? Maybe across the bay in San Francisco, where the inexplicably popular Mayor Gavin Newsom is hacking away at his city’s reputation as a haven for the homeless, but Berkeley, California? One of the very most homeless-hostile communities in America? There had to be something else going on here.

It turns out that “meanness” is in the eye of the beholder, and that as far as the report’s authors can tell, we’re all jerks.

“There are no nice cities when it comes to the homeless,” explained Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Really? But what is a meanie if you don’t have a nice guy to compare her to? Stoops said that to be considered nice, a community would have to provide shelter to all of its residents, which no city in the U.S. does.

Stoops said the report’s authors looked at several metrics, including what he described as the “overall political climate” with respect to homelessness, but was clear that the most important variables were the number of laws that target sleeping or loitering in public places, and the enforcement of those laws.

“There are good people and model programs there in Honolulu,” Stoops said. “When we label a city mean, our designation is focused on criminalization of homelessness and civil rights violations.”

What that comes down to on Oahu is the rousting of homeless encampments on beaches and in the downtown and Chinatown areas. It’s always in the news, nobody has a good answer, and, like so many other issues, it will be with us for many years to come. But is it fair to call Honolulu hostile to the homeless?

“I think to some degree it does give an unfair impression,” said Janet Kelly, a program managing attorney at Legal Aid who handles many homeless-related projects as an advocate. “Unfortunately, though, there is a lot that still needs to be done to help the homeless. It comes down to money–do we have enough money to allow people to find jobs and to get the support they need?

Kelly thinks policymakers are in a tough position. She said she believes Hawaii lawmakers are aware and concerned about the challenges facing the homeless.

“City and state agencies and officials have been helpful to us,” she said, “and very often give us as much notice and help as they can so that we can try to prepare clients. At the same time, they have to respond to complaints from other constituents, who don’t want to see beaches full of tents. They have a fine balance to walk. As a whole, I think the agencies that deal with the homeless try to be as considerate as they can be.”

That’s good news coming from an advocate for the homeless. There are far more people without shelter on this island than any of us would like there to be, but just maybe that “meanest” designation doesn’t quite fit after all. In any case, we’d better hope not: as Kelly points out, the current state of the economy is about to make a bad problem worse.

“As there are more foreclosures and more evictions,” Kelly said, “obviously there are likely to be many more homeless people out there.”