Innovative and collective efforts have led to steady declines in Hawaii homelessness

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Governor beefs up homelessness program staffing, finding shelter for families

Homelessness is an ever-present issue in the islands. It intersects with nearly every other major issue, from cost of living and housing affordability to the ice epidemic and tourism.

Whether despite or because of this ubiquity, a persistent question emerges: is homelessness in Hawaii getting better? In some ways the answer is clear, and in other ways it isn’t.

It first depends on how you frame the word “better.” If we’re talking now compared to a few years ago, the answer is a resounding “yes.” If we’re talking now compared to 2005, the answer is much closer to “no.”

According to the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) from December 2018, Hawaii saw a significant 9.6% decrease in homelessness from 2017 to 2018, but from 2007-2018 it saw an overall 7.6% increase in homelessness. What matters more than these statistics, however, is a broad look at the trends over time.

“From 2016 to present we’ve actually seen a statewide decrease in homelessness by 18%,” said Scott Morishige, the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness. “We’ve seen the greatest reductions in homeless families and homeless veterans.” There has been a 39% reduction in the number of homeless families since 2016, and a 24% reduction in homeless veterans.

Much of this success is due to a re-calibrated focus. Whereas previous efforts to address homelessness focused on a step-by-step process — from emergency housing to transitional housing to permanent housing — now there is a greater emphasis on individualized treatment to get people into permanent housing in an appropriate amount of time given their specific situations.

“New programs are focused on housing as an end goal. In the past we approached homelessness as a linear system where you’d go through this long process before you’d be ready to be placed into housing. This kept people homeless longer than they needed to be. Many people need housing first to secure their situation and seek additional help from there,” Morishige said. “It’s important to have flexibility to meet people where they’re at and give them a range of services to get out. Not everyone is going to be the same.”

This makes intuitive sense — homelessness, after all, is defined by the absence of having a home — but in practice it can be a challenge. The key is to understand the homeless individual as a distinct yet connected part of the broader issue of homelessness.

“There’s no one single cause of homelessness and no situation is necessarily the same. Every situation is unique. For some individuals, they’re experiencing homelessness due to poverty, but for many other people there are layers. They’re dealing with addiction, mental health issues, physical health issues, broken homes. You keep the focus on housing but you need to know what their individualized needs are so you take time to work with them. It’s not just economics; it’s economics on top of all these other issues.”

That’s why new efforts, such as the Joint Outreach Centers, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion programs, and the Outreach Navigation Program are based on evidence and data.

“In 2017 the State Department of Human Services implemented new performance metrics that focused on placement into permanent housing and increasing efficiency in the system,” Morishige said. “The State also started to tie a portion of funding to providers meeting those metrics. Through the implementation of these metrics and tying them to funding, we’ve been able to see better outcomes. Not only have we seen the number of homeless people on the streets go down, but we’re also seeing the number of people moving into permanent housing increase over time. Our approach is not cookie cutter, it’s focusing on creating a pathway to housing. There’s intention in the approach, but it takes time.”

This may seem suspicious to some people. A common refrain nowadays is that things appear to be getting worse. Morishige understands that perception, but urges people to not let their anecdotal experiences blur what’s really happening.

“You have to look at the trends over time. You have to recognize that homelessness in Hawaii prior to 2016 was increasing year after year. From cutbacks in social services programs and the general nationwide recession, more people found themselves in situations of homelessness. We’ve tried to bring those numbers down, and we have.

“Our numbers over time are trending in the right direction. Homelessness is a very visible issue, so when we look at the data it looks like there’s progress, but it can still feel like homelessness is not improving enough because we still see it right in front of us. That’s why it’s important that we’re analyzing data and not just impressions.”

Despite the hopeful signs, there is still much to be done.

“We have to recognize the difference between homelessness and homeless people. Homelessness is an issue dealing with people. Ultimately for the issue of homelessness, you have to look at why someone is homeless. It’s because they don’t have a home, a stable place to live. If we keep the focus on permanent housing, it gives a clearer end point. With homeless people, there’s more complexity. Not everyone ends up in that state for the same reasons. We have to address the issue of homelessness, but have flexibility for the unique challenges that people may have.”

Although there is still plenty of work to be done, Morishige is hopeful. Not only are the numbers trending in the right direction, other, less quantitative factors have created a turning point in Hawaii’s efforts to eliminate homelessness.

“Many people in the community have started to step up. The momentum that we see now is not one person or even the state’s efforts alone. It’s been a community response. People in the private sector have really started to take leadership on the issue. Everyone is moving in the same direction, which has contributed to the progress that we’ve seen. It’s been a collective effort.

“The fight is not over. We still have a long way to go, but it’s positive that we’re moving in the right direction.”

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