They don't need shelters -- they need subsidies
WHILE recent efforts by the Office of the Governor and the state Legislature to find solutions and dedicate more funding to homeless services clearly demonstrates their deep desire to solve this problem, the priorities of much of the new funding might set Hawaii back 20 years in implementing solutions that actually can reduce homelessness.
What are we doing wrong, and what should Hawaii do?
» No more shelters
Most cities are trying to reduce the number of emergency shelter beds, not increase them. Two decades of research have demonstrated that building emergency shelters only increases the homeless problem and further institutionalizes the population. Free rent equals more customers -- ask any economist. Many families at the new Kakaako site were not even homeless. Doubled up with family perhaps, but that is a different and better situation than living in a warehouse. The priority system, which gives public housing priority to homeless families living in emergency shelters, has too often created much of the family homelessness on Oahu.
» Permanent housing subsidies
If you are going to spend $5,000-$7,000 a year housing someone in an emergency shelter, you might as well subsidize their rent and put them into permanent housing. The Kakaako shelter will cost more than $750,000 to operate for 12 months. Many individuals living there have significant disabilities and need permanent housing subsidies to complement their Social Security checks. Instead of paying for warehouse costs, the state could have arranged $300-$400 monthly rent subsidies for nearly 150 individuals.
» Cost-effective programs
While the individuals involved in the "bus initiative" are trying to be creative, putting homeless people in buses would take at least $100,000 per year per bus for 16 people, or $6,000-plus per person. Again, subsidies at that level could place them into real housing.
» No more outreach services
Outreach workers already have good relations with many unsheltered homeless. We don't need more outreach services; the current outreach workers need more housing subsidies. This is what homeless individuals want -- more than a meal, more than treatment, more than a friendly hello. They need and want a place to live.
» Expand Shelter Plus Care
The most cost-effective program to serve homeless individuals and families is the Shelter Plus Care program. Limited federal funds provided approximately 300 rental subsidies through the program. A state initiative mirroring the federal Shelter Plus Care program -- funded at, say, $2 million per year -- could house between 200 and 300 households permanently -- not in warehouses or buses, but real live apartments.
» More housing specialists
While finding affordable housing is difficult, it can be done. The homeless need more specialists to work with landlords and to compete against students, transplants and locals for affordable apartments. The potential is very much untapped. All the current Shelter Plus Care and Section 8 subsidies are in use -- meaning, there are available apartments.
Once upon a time the state had a plan that prioritized permanent supportive housing as the No. 1 solution to end homelessness, especially chronic homelessness. Housing First was the mantra, not more shelter. Both of Honolulu's daily papers endorsed it. So did the Governor's Office and Partners-in-Care, the coalition of homeless service providers.
In all the frenzy over the surplus, what happened to that plan? Why did much of the new money go to solutions proven ineffective? Why did nearly all the program money go to untested, faith-based initiatives? Who made these decisions? With the surplus this year, we really might have lost an opportunity.
So from now on, please listen closely. No more shelters. No more ideas that create more homelessness. And no more ideas that have not passed the cost-effectiveness test. Hawaii can do better than putting people in warehouses and buses.
Remember, there is always next year. And with the decisions made this year, there likely will be even more homelessness to solve.
Michael D. Ullman is former planning chairman of Partners in Care, a homeless services consultant and the creator of "Truly Dually," a musical about solutions to homelessness.