Stuck in Paradise: Homelessness in Hawaii

Get beyond the myths of being homeless in Hawaii

One of the parks where tents line the border. Photo by Diane Nilan

The dad trying to fix the starter in his pickup truck said it best: “When you become homeless in Hawaii, you’re stuck.” To put it another way,

Hawaii is the most isolated population center on the face of the earth.

In case you’re wondering how far our 50th state is from the US mainland, here’s a surprising fact: The southernmost tip of Alaska is the nearest US landmass to Hawaii, 2,259 miles, about 12 miles closer than California. But I digress.

Families experiencing homelessness also occupy tents lining many parks. Photo by Diane Nilan

I’m in Hawaii now, filming for a documentary on kids and families experiencing homelessness. It’s what I do for my work in my one-woman nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.

I’ve filmed in many of 48 lower mainland US states. I’ve worked on the issue of homelessness since the mid-80s. I’ve never seen a more hopeless form of homelessness than I have on the the Aloha State. From infants to the elderly, everywhere. True, they won’t freeze here, but being without a home presents far more complications than freezing.

Since I’m not privy to Hawaii’s inner workings of efforts to address homelessness, I’m focusing on what I see and hear from those experiencing it and from workers in the trenches.

From what I’ve learned so far, the main factors driving the growth of homelessness:

  • Poverty — it takes a staggering $36 hr. wage to afford basic housing in HI, so unless you’re earning big bucks, you’re housing-compromised or as one teen called it “house-less.” Minimum wage workers ($10.10 hr) could afford a place that rents for $525. Ha.
  • Housing affordability/accessibility — to afford a 2-BR unit in Hawaii, you need to earn above $52,000. And have good credit, meaning no evictions, and not too many kids.
  • Lack of housing options — subsidized housing, in its many forms, has waiting lists of years. Even HUD’s (non)solution du jour — Housing First — struggles to make an impact, for many reasons, but the lack of rentals looms large. The University of Hawaii conducted a HF review and offered this lackluster assessment: “After two years, Housing First served 214 people in 135 households, including 48 children. The majority of clients were single men and the average age of a client at intake was 45.” Good for those who were housed. Too bad for the thousands not helped.
  • Lack of vital services — not really quantified as official reports, but anecdotally the need for adequate, appropriate human services is dire, and unmet. I guess you’re expected to limp out of homelessness. Not a good model.
Hawaii struggles to figure out homelessness. Photo by Diane Nilan
It’s time, way past time, to address homelessness. Photo by Diane Nilan

Hawaii governmental bodies have vacillated on what appears to be a lackluster approach to homelessness. Get tough. Back off. Good cop. Bad cop. Now they’ve shifted to get tough. But nicely.

Let me throw in my 2 cents worth, nicely. Yes, homelessness is complex, and challenging. Two populations you might want to ramp up efforts to help are

  • Families
  • Youth on their own.

Yes, keep trying to find multi-level solutions for adults, but if you ignore the incoming class of potential homeless adults — the kids — you’re just going to have more adults without housing and in need of expensive services.

With little effort at all, I’ve found a seemingly endless “supply” of families and youth. Those who work with these populations assure me that those without housing are everywhere in quantities that would shock even me.

What I hear in the Aloha State is what I’ve heard in the mainland:

  • It’s easier to get into homelessness than to get out.
  • Waiting lists for subsidized housing are either closed or several years long.
  • Bad credit, prior evictions, family size, past due utility bills, previous incarcerations, inadequate or lack of employment are all barriers to permanent housing.
  • They’ve put stuff in storage, and most have lost some, if not all, including precious IDs.
  • They’re working, but are stuck in minimum wage jobs. Parents rue the time they must spend away from their kids, taking 2 jobs to try to get back on their feet.
  • Youth end up working the streets in an underground economy that destroys them before they can escape.
  • Childcare is outrageously expensive, with few subsidies.
  • Parents are humiliated because they can’t provide for their families.
  • Kids are bullied because they don’t fit in with their monied peers. Educational gaps, geographic isolation, inability to participate in extra-curricular activities add to the more basic differences — clothing, hygiene, and high mobility.

The one factor different here — you can’t escape, or move somewhere else to start over. You’re stuck. I guess it’s good we won’t see a Grapes of Wrath migration to the Promise Land.

…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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