Helping homeless needs coordination


POSTED: Thursday, February 18, 2010

Our three-day special series “;Homeless in Plain Sight”; made clear that commendable efforts are being made at every level of government and by the private sector to combat homelessness. Less clear was the degree to which those levels coordinate their efforts to put roofs over the heads of as many as possible and look after the well-being of those who remain homeless. A seamless system is necessary.

The state has opened six shelters on Oahu in the past five years and, on any given day, up to 2,500 of the homeless find temporary shelter under those or other roofs. Nearly 1,200 a day sleep under the sky. One-third of the island's unsheltered homeless are classified as “;chronically homeless,”; disabled by such conditions as substance abuse or mental illness.


The growth of Hawaii's homeless is exacerbated by an influx of newcomers who have come here though a federal compact with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands allowing their citizens to move to the United States. The number of those islanders in Hawaii rose from 4,600 to 12,215 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they accounted for nearly one-fourth of the inhabitants of Honolulu's homeless shelters last year. The financial burden of the compact also is evidenced in related services: Hawaii spends more than $120 million annually on medical insurance, education and other benefits for compact recipients, but receives just $11 million in federal reimbursement. It is high time that the U.S. government, or the homelands of these citizens, be pressed to hold up the financial end of what has devolved into an unfunded federal mandate.

One in five of the homeless in Waikiki lives outdoors by choice, according to a 2006 study.

“;I've lived in a lot of places,”; said Daniel Schnitzler, an ex-felon encamped in Waikiki. “;Here I have 200 acres with a million-dollar view. What's not to like?”;

Churches and other nonprofit organizations exercise laudable compassion in providing meals at no cost to the homeless at more than 30 sites, including Kapiolani Park.

“;All of us are called to feed the hungry, never mind where they are,”; said Carol Ignacio, director of the Hawaii Catholic Diocese Office for Social Ministry. “;We have a responsibility to do that.”;

However, tourists in Waikiki are increasingly annoyed by the homeless inhabiting bathrooms, street begging and public urination and defecation. The effect on tourism is troublesome, damaging the state's economy and causing layoffs that could add to the homeless.

If meals are to be offered, what makes sense is to provide them in not-so-visible spots that also integrate and offer outreach to get people off the streets. Enable the experts on the front lines to help discern the responsible struggling family from those with severe mental or substance-abuse problems, or from those transient snowbirds. Within the homeless population are subsectors and subneeds; these need to be identified and services geared toward helping people help themselves.

Cities on the mainland contacted by the Star-Bulletin have handled the homeless problem well through mutual cooperation of government, community and nonprofit service providers. Much of that involves construction of housing projects with the goal of getting the homeless off the streets.

Initiatives by those cities could be helpful in addressing the problem in Hawaii, but discouraging those who essentially are homeless tourists may be unique to the islands; an effective ban closures public parks at night should be included in that policy for these people.