I would declare a state of emergency to address Hawai‘i’s homeless crisis.

By Kirk Caldwell, as published in the Star-Advertiser, March 27, 2022

Homelessness has been a growing problem in Hawai‘i for three decades. For a while, it was hidden in the back streets of Iwilei or alleys of Chinatown. But it steadily grew, and by the time I was elected Mayor, we placed homelessness among our top priorities.

Thanks to tireless efforts of many dedicated people in Hawai‘i’s private, public and non-profit sectors, we found ways to make progress. From 2015 to 2020, O‘ahu saw a 10% decrease in total homelessness, 48% decrease in homeless families, 45% decrease in homeless children, and 24% decrease in veteran homelessness.

But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, our community had to shift focus, and we lost our momentum on the progress we were making. As a result, in the last two years homelessness has grown dramatically and now affects neighborhoods across O‘ahu and the Neighbor Islands.

We need to redouble our efforts and our resources to tackle the homelessness issue head-on.

It’s also critical to recognize both sides of the causes of homelessness to shape our efforts on the best solutions for progress.

First, there are those whose causes for homelessness – or impending homelessness – is primarily economic. They’re just broke. With the amount they earn and the needs of their household, they simply cannot find any housing they can remotely afford, even with Section 8 or other assistance. They are literally without a house or any alternatives. Sadly, many of these folks are families with keiki or ku¯puna. 

For such families, we now know a model proven to work: ultra-low cost housing like Kahauiki Village the successful public-private partnership near Keehi Lagoon, Hale Mauliola at Sand Island, and other such communities from Waima¯nalo to Wai‘anae. In these self-sustaining communities families find medium- and long-term stability, safety, and can use vouchers or other assistance to help pay for housing. It provides an opportunity for them to build a foundation for their family’s future.

We need to create more of these villages and communities, dozens of them, across Hawai‘i…and the state should do it. Government can provide the land, infrastructure and construction to build them; non-profits, churches, and community groups can be engaged to manage them with funding from federal, state and local sources. Working together, we’ve already created over a thousand such homes. With determination we can build several thousand more, in locations where they are needed most.

Then there are the individuals who are chronically homeless, and possibly coping with mental illness or substance abuse as well. For these individuals, we need to invest more in short-term shelters, medical and hygiene centers, and food distribution. Organizations like the Institute for Human Services have already demonstrated how much impact they can make with even moderate funding. Government must step up with more intensive and long-term financial support to these very worthy non-profits. 

These programs also provide the infrastructure to offer mental health and drug treatment programs for the chronically homeless. More investment in such services is another critical component to reducing this very disturbing aspect of the homeless issue.

To pave the way for action, funding, and zoning on these initiatives, I would declare a state of emergency to address Hawai‘i’s homeless crisis. It’s the strongest way to ensure we mobilize on the scale required to dramatically reduce homelessness, help those in need, and ease the burdens on our communities.