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HOOSER: Dealing with the homeless on Kaua‘i

An acquaintance grabbed my ear recently saying, “Gary, how can we get rid of all these homeless people?” He went on to bemoan the presence of the poor and unwashed that seem to be sleeping under every bridge and in every doorway.

For the most part, I just let him talk.

“Why can’t they get a job like everyone else? There are job openings everywhere. Why can’t they take a bath, get off the streets, and stop begging in front of the convenience store?”

“Why don’t we just arrest them all and fly them back to where they came from?” he complained. “You can’t go anywhere without seeing them. They are at the beach, by the airport, along the road to Kealia, across from the mayor’s office — everywhere!”

He thanked me for my time and walked on, not really caring about what I thought.

Which is why I am here, writing this today.

The answer to getting rid of the houseless is to ensure we all have access to permanently affordable housing.

They are houseless, not homeless. Their home is on the streets. What they lack is a house.

Yes, certainly there are many other issues that include mental health and addiction. But it’s impossible to deal with these underlying issues effectively if the individual is living on the streets.

Kick them out? Tear down their tents and tell them to move on?

Kaua‘i Economic Opportunity (KEO) operates the only emergency shelter on our island, and has 165 people on their waiting list. Other transitional shelters on the island are also full.

There is literally no place for these folks to go.

As to “send them back to where they came from”…hello…according to recent counts of the houseless on Kaua‘i, only 3 percent of people experiencing homelessness on Kaua‘i are newcomers. The vast majority are long-term or lifelong residents, and Native Hawaiians are overrepresented.

Arresting poor people who cannot afford a warm, dry, safe place to sleep and who have no other option but to sleep on the street, in a doorway or in the bushes, is unconscionable — not to mention, extremely expensive.

Employers are hesitant to hire a houseless person who may come to the interview without a permanent mailing address and looking like they just woke up after sleeping all night in a doorway. It further reduces an applicant’s job prospects if they are missing teeth or have other health issues.

Even if they managed to get a job, it will of course not be paying a living wage. Even if they got two jobs, there are no affordable homes available. Period.

Whether freshly scrubbed, teeth or no teeth, good clothes or not — the challenge of finding an affordable home or even a room to rent is formidable — for everyone.

Yes, it’s complicated. No, it’s not complicated.

Ensuring access to affordable homes is the answer. Construct new, permanently affordable units, and prioritize access to new and existing units for long-term local residents earning local wages.

If government funding is used and/or government assistance is utilized, the homes built can legally be required to be permanently affordable, and long-time residents can be given first priority to rent and/or purchase them.

There’s no shortage of vacant land located in existing urban areas that already has the basic infrastructure (sewer, roads, water) and located near job centers, shopping, schools and health facilities. Private lands can be purchased at fair market value by the county or state, and/or landowners could be incentivized appropriately in return for providing permanent affordable housing for locals.

There are good things happening now at both the state and county levels, but much more is needed. The houseless situation and the extreme lack of affordable housing need to be treated like the dire emergency they are.


Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.
Source: The Garden Island

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