Sen. Chun Oakland (l) and Matthew Doherty
Image: Karleanne Matthews

With more young children in shelters, citizens and government team up to address needs

Community / Homelessness is rising on Oahu. The City and County of Honolulu recorded 4,353 homeless residents in January 2012, up from 4,234 last year. Now federal and local organizations are sharing information and working together to reverse this trend.

On Nov. 9, at the Capitol, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland and Rep. Jo Jordan held a public meeting providing local individuals, non-profit groups and government agencies an opportunity to talk with Matthew Doherty, Western regional coordinator for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “A big part of my goal is to understand . . . what is happening here and to bring information on what’s happening elsewhere so that no community needs to start from scratch,” Doherty said. The best method for ending homelessness, Doherty advised, is a housing-first model, in which finding homes is prioritized over any other needs. Then, he said, advocates and their clients can “use that [home] as the basis of stability from which they can solve the other issues . . . that had led to their homelessness.”

Doherty emphasized the importance of “data-driven strategies” meant to ensure that services are aligned with the needs of specific groups, who may be homeless for reasons ranging from economic instability to addictions or untreated mental health problems. Local researchers are working to equip service providers with this information. On Nov. 13, UH Manoa’s Center on the Family released its 2012 Service Utilization Report, which tracks the ages, ethnicity and education levels of clients, how long they’ve been homeless and whether they are part of a family group.

At the meeting, representatives of several groups shared concerns. Jo Chang, who works with lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) youth, noted that these children experience homelessness at much higher rates than do others of the same age. Ken Akinaka, executive director of the Hepatitis Support Network of Hawaii, brought up a “hidden homeless” population of youth who find temporary housing–such as a friend’s couch–“because they’re kids,” but have no long-term housing options. Kimberly Frank, CEO of YWCA Oahu, which offers transitional housing for female veterans, asked about national research on homelessness among these women, particularly those with children.

Carolina Jesus said she started out by taking people into her own home. Now she directs Shelter of Wisdom, a faith-based nonprofit organization that runs five houses. Homeowners charge rent that is far below market value, providing temporary housing while residents get back on their feet. The group also helps its residents find income.

The overall tone of the meeting was civil, if at times exasperated, as attendees asked earnest questions and sought more information. Local advocates revealed deeper frustration, however, when speaking about government policies or ordinances that criminalize homelessness.

Larry Geller, president of Kokua Council, highlighted the problems associated with ordinances such as Bill 54, the city’s sidewalk possessions ban enacted in 2011. “People are chased to beaches, where they’re ticketed,” said Geller. Although law enforcement officials are required to wait 24 hours before confiscating property, they’ve been caught on tape violating that policy, he added.

Others decried how being homeless leads to a police record. “What is prevention when the person is down and out and you got the laws all against them?” asked Alice Greenwood of Waianae.

While government actions can often have “unintended consequences,” the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness, Colin Kippen, added that continually assessing whether current measures are effective–and tweaking them if they aren’t–is the way government works. It can be difficult to decide how to provide support without negating personal responsibility, and “every one of these service providers works with that line,” he said.

The efforts of service providers appear to be slowly working; both the city’s and the Center on the Family’s reports show that shelter use has slightly increased, and that there are fewer people on the streets. Doherty said he felt the turnout at the meeting reflected positively on the community’s commitment to reducing homelessness on Oahu.

“I’m really impressed . . . with the variety of folks here in the room . . . who want to come to the table to see what role we can play. [That’s] not something that we necessarily see in every community,” Doherty said.