As the number of people living without a home in Hawai‘i continues to increase, a state representative is proposing a bill that would establish a bill of rights for homeless people.
“The system is broken and the county and the state really need to come together with the homeless advocates on finding the correct formula to deal humanely with the homeless,” state Rep. John Mizuno said in a phone interview.
House Bill 1322 (HB 1322) calls for each homeless person in the state to have rights such as being able to move freely in public spaces, have equal opportunities for employment, receive equal treatment by state and county officials and freely accept or deny shelter or services from any state or county agency.
Rights for the homeless
Mizuno had introduced this bill in the previous legislative session where it received mostly negative responses. One area of concern was homeless people sitting or lying on public sidewalks.
“You have law enforcement saying, ‘Well, how can I do my job if someone is laying on the sidewalk, blocking the sidewalk?’ My answer’s ‘No, well if someone is blocking the sidewalk, remove him or her.’ I mean that’s understood. But we do it humanely,” Mizuno said.
In December, the City and County of Honolulu passed a sit-lie ban that prohibited homeless from sitting or lying on public sidewalks in areas zoned for commercial and business activities.
Mizuno said his main goal is to start a conversation about how the homeless are treated.
“My message was I’m not saying we’re going to pass this [HB 1322] into law, but we certainly need the discussion and we need to try to formulate a way where the police, the county, state officials, homeless advocates can all come to the table and humanely deal with the issue of homelessness not only in Honolulu but throughout our state,” he said.
State Homeless Coordinator Colin Kippen believes this year’s bill codifies rights that are already protected in the federal and state constitutions. He supports a conversation about what’s being done in regards to criminalizing the homeless.
“Criminalizing people who are homeless has no positive effect on any homelessness,” Kippen said in a phone interview. “My job is to end homelessness, and so what I have committed myself to do is those positive things that will cause homelessness to be reduced and eventually eliminated.”
Homeless in Hawai‘i
According to a 2014 report compiled by the state’s Homeless Programs Office and city Department of Community Services, the number of homeless people on O‘ahu has increased by 3.42 percent from the previous year, while Kaua‘i and Maui counties each saw increases of about nine percent. Hawai‘i island saw a 56 percent increase.
According to Kippen, part of this increase has to do with Hawai‘i’s hospitable climate. He added that climate does affect when people choose to come off the streets or make other arrangements, such as in colder cities where it snows in the winter.
Another factor, he said, is the cost of living in the state. According to a July 2014 report by the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Policy, the average rents in the state increased by 45 percent between 2005 and 2012 while average wages only increased by 21 percent over the same period.
Getting homeless off the streets
However, giving homeless people rights may take a backseat to providing housing if a new state program is implemented.
“We’re moving to try to really understand the needs of the people who are homeless,” Kippen said. “And we’re moving from what could have been termed a treatment first model to a housing first model.”
Under the prevailing system, which has been in place in the state and across the nation for about 40 to 50 years, homeless people would first need to get well before being eligible to be moved into a more permanent housing situation.
First, a homeless person would go into an emergency shelter and if he or she does well, that person would move into a transitional shelter before being moved into more permanent housing.
“It’s almost like if you could imagine a waterfall and salmon that’s trying to swim up the waterfall,” Kippen said. “What the data here tells us and across the country is that there are many individuals, salmon, who are not strong enough to swim up that river. And what we need to do is stabilize them as quickly as we can by providing them with housing and then providing the level of services they require to stay in housing and to change their life for good.”
Implementing a new system
While this system has not been fully implemented in the state, a common intake and assessment process is currently being executed as a pilot on O‘ahu to help triage the homeless into the levels of housing and support services they will need.
Utah is one state that has worked with a housing first initiative. The state started using this initiative in 2005 as the basis of its 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness, and has since seen a 72 percent decrease among chronic homeless thanks to this approach, according to Utah’s 2014 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness. This initiative provides housing first rather than sobriety or other steps being taken prior to receiving housing.
Until now, each service provider had a different way of figuring out who got what services, Kippen said.
“I want to be able to say in the Mānoa-Makiki area, how many chronically homeless people do I have? I can figure that out now because the surveys that we are doing are giving us that kind of information,” he said.
Through this assessment process, the state would be able to see who requires rapid re-housing, who requires short-term housing and who requires more permanent housing and support.
Those that require rapid rehousing would probably require housing support for three to nine months, according to Kippen, as well as some support in terms of counseling, job hunting or resume writing to become stabilized and move into a more permanent housing situation.
Those that require short-term housing are high performing but had some crisis occur, such as a family fight that ended with a member being kicked out of the house. Once that problem is alleviated, such as through connections being rebuilt, the person would go back to the way he or she was living.
Many of those that require permanent housing are those who are chronically homeless, which the 2014 Homeless Service Utilization Report defines as adults who have a disabling health or mental condition and who have been homeless for at least one year or have had at least four homeless episodes in the past three years.
According to Kippen, providing the services while being housed works versus providing services while a person is still living on the streets.
“You’re providing the services to them when they’re the most stable that they’ve ever been because living on the streets is extremely unstable,” he said.
It will likely take several years to bring this housing first system online, according to Kippen.
Homeless on campus
In the past week, two incidents concerning homeless people were reported to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Department of Public Safety.
On Feb. 15, a sexual assault was reported to DPS where a man who appeared to be homeless grabbed a female student several times. The incident occurred near Beretania Street and University Avenue.
Later that day, a man who appeared to be homeless approached a UH employee outside of Kuykendall Hall and asked for his wallet. When the employee declined, the man fled towards Dole Street.
According to DPS Community Programs Manager Sarah Rice, DPS documents behavior, not homelessness.
“When someone is following the rules on campus and they’re in an area that they’re not supposed to be or in an area after hours where they’re not supposed to be, then we treat them just the same as any other person,” she said.