Cleanliness, community, and closets for the homeless

Last month, Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan introduced Resolution 13-116, asking that the city study the feasibility of opening hygiene centers in Honolulu for the homeless. The nonprofit Urban Rest Stop in Seattle, Washington, which offers toilet, shower, and laundry services 24-hours a day, is held up as model to follow.

I thought hygiene centers would be a good idea when I first read about it. But the more I thought about them, the more I questioned it. It’s a big investment in land, building, and staff, but the resolution is based entirely on one human services program in Seattle.

When looking at legislation, there are three basic questions to ask: 1. Is it constitutional? On this issue, yes. The bigger questions are: 2. Can we afford it and 3. Does it solve the problem?

* Can we afford it? According to a KITV news article, Manahan says that the Urban Rest Stop spends $600,000 a year for each of its facilities. It’s paid for by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the City, and private donors. I don’t think we can rely on the federal government for funding, and I don’t think the City can afford to run hygiene centers, in addition to shelters and other programs.

* Does it solve the problem?Honolulu already operates 13 homeless shelter programs and numerous aid programs. Would the homeless people who currently avoid shelters use a hygiene center? Would people want to use public parks and playgrounds if a hygiene center is on the grounds? Would enough people use the center to justify the 24-hour staffing that we need to prevent vandalism and illegal activity? While a hygiene center would help homeless people who have a job or who are seriously looking for a job, it would not reduce the number of tents and shopping carts on the streets.

I agree with Manahan’s approach: we should consider the needs of the homeless, and try to address them. But I think we also need to fit our solutions with existing programs and budgets. Here are a few ideas:

Homeless people don’t have easy and welcome access to restrooms and showers.
* Drive mobile hygiene trucks. Instead of building and staffing a permanent hygiene center, we could test this concept with a mobile hygiene truck. Okay, it’s not an existing service, but the idea works for food (Meals on Wheels) and books (Hawaii Bookmobile). And social service workers already drive out to meet clients. This would offer an additional service, and the mobile staff can help them get into a shelter. Could we convert old buses or container boxes? Is the water hookup even possible?
* Open the YMCA and Hawaii hostels for special hours. Can the nonprofit YMCA have special open-house hours for homeless people to use the showers and restrooms, even if they are not living in YMCA housing? Could the city contract with hostels for similar open house hours?

Homeless people are disconnected from the community.
* Get family members and friends involved. Can we start a program to get family members, childhood friends, and former co-workers to help? These relatives and acquaintances could work with a social worker get homeless people into shelters and take turns keeping in touch with them.
* Recruit churches, civic groups, and nonprofits. Can churches, civic groups, and nonprofit organizations adopt a homeless person living in their neighborhood? Can we create a Big Brothers, Big Sisters type of mentor-assistance program?

Homeless people do not have a safe place to store their belongings.
* Build storage lockers. Can we install storage lockers in public places, such as police stations, staffed public parks, the State Capitol building grounds, and municipal buildings? Can we ask businesses to report the theft of their shopping carts?

Do you think that hygiene centers would be an effective way to help the homeless? Are there better ways to aid the homeless? What types of assistance programs should be a priority in Hawaii?

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