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Hawai‘i homelessness coordinator, Kaua‘i County Council debate root cause of homelessness crisis

LIHU‘E — James Koshiba, Gov. Josh Green’s coordinator on homelessness, met with the Kaua‘i County Council on Wednesday to discuss solutions for Hawai‘i’s growing homelessness crisis, emphasizing the administration’s focus on countering the continuing unaffordability of homes in the state.

“The root cause of homelessness and this explosion of homelessness is not mental illness, it’s not drug use,” Koshiba told the council members. “It really comes down to the lack of affordable space in our communities.”

“I’m not saying drug use and mental illness are not contributing factors,” he clarified. “But if you look at the explosion, the increase in homelessness that started in Hawai‘i around 2005, what you see is the trend lines going back 20 years (showing) our rates of mental illness and substance abuse haven’t gone up. What’s gone up is the gap between housing costs and what our people are earning.”

Koshiba also maintained his and Green’s goal of slashing the state’s unsheltered homeless population in half within the next three years, equating to about 2,000 residents taken off the streets.

While Koshiba acknowledged a series of complications could hamper their efforts, including an end to many COVID-19 era federal resources and continued increases in statewide housing costs, he touted the Statewide Office on Homelessness and Housing Solutions’ (OHHS) Kauhale Initiative as a core component of his and Green’s plan.

Through the initiative, OHHS plans to establish 12 Kauhale projects across Hawai‘i — six on O‘ahu, and two each in Kaua‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i counties. Each Kauhale will consist of a series of small “deeply affordable” housing units, where monthly rents are approximately $500 per household.

Koshiba added that OHHS plans to place an emphasis on communal responsibility in each Kauhale — not only for the villages’ well-being, but for the initiative’s survival as well.

“The key to Kauhale is this idea of operating as a village and functioning like a community,” Koshiba said. “Because if people take responsibility for taking care of their space and for operating the space together, that’s what keeps the operating costs low, and that’s how we’ll be able to sustain affordability.”

Citing O‘ahu’s Pu‘uhonua O Wai‘anae village as an example, Koshiba noted that much of the community’s economic viability stems from teamwork between neighbors, whether it’s infrastructure repairs and improvement projects or the village’s all-volunteer security team which patrols the community every night.

“That sense of communal kuleana, shared kuleana, is going to contribute to helping keep these spaces affordable,” Koshiba said.

Not every council member agreed with Koshiba’s assessment of homelessness in Hawai‘i, however. County Council Chair Mel Rapozo strongly contested Koshiba’s claims, arguing that the state’s efforts severely understate the impact of substance use and mental illness on the state’s unhoused.

Rapozo suggested the state’s Point in Time Count — which states that approximately 1 in 4 of Hawai‘i’s homeless residents suffer from either mental health issues or substance abuse — likely underreports the issue’s scope, citing his personal experiences at many of Kaua‘i’s homeless encampments as evidence.

“For my former job as prosecuting attorney, I went down there, not to provide outreach, but to go there for bad guys and take witness statements,” he said. “And I can tell you, if you haven’t been down there, then you should not be making a statement like that. Because I can guarantee you that none of the people camping out there had responded to the Point in Time Count — guarantee — because no (pollster) went that way.”

Rapozo continued, stressing both the state and county’s first and foremost response to the homelessness crisis should focus on substance abuse and mental health services.

“If the state’s position is drug abuse and mental illness are not driving homelessness, then we’re already in the wrong direction,” he said.

While County Council Vice Chair KipuKai Kuali‘i did not disagree that these factors play a role in the state’s rising homeless population, he ultimately sided with Koshiba, arguing that the issue’s root cause falls on Hawai‘i’s lack of affordable housing.

“When you’re talking about the drive, yes — of course drugs and alcohol is a big part of it,” Kuali‘i said. “But what they’re saying is that even deeper than that, the biggest problem is, we don’t have deeply affordable living spaces for people. People without a drug problem, without an alcohol problem, are homeless. And they’re homeless because our entire system of housing has failed and continues to fail, especially on the lowest end.”

Kuali‘i continued, suggesting that securing funding for programs like the Kauhale Initiative should be the county’s foremost focus when attempting to tackle Kaua‘i’s growing homelessness crisis.

“It’s really important that we take advantage of the support and the commitment that this governor has,” he said. “We should take advantage of this, because we need it.”


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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