Homelessness in Hawaii

No Room in Paradise

Last week I watched the 90-minute documentary, “No Room In Paradise” (2016) on Hawaii News Now. Filmmakers Anthony Aalto and Mike Hinchey of Green Island Films followed Justin Phillips, homeless outreach field manager for the Institute of Human Services (IHS), as he visited homeless communities around Oahu. The documentary showed the many faces of the homeless, including minimum-wage earners who can’t afford a home to single-mothers, substance-abusers and the mentally ill, Micronesians, veterans, newly-released prisoners, and tent city residents.

After watching the documentary, I was saddened and thoughtful. It made me appreciate everything that I have. My 10-year old son was subdued. I commented that we are lucky to have a home and pointed out how using drugs can destroy lives.

Here are some observations and ideas that I hope will spark discussions:

* Touch is important. We all need human contact. Justin constantly reached out and touched people on the shoulder, showing that he cares and that he is not afraid to touch them. He looks at them directly and turns his body towards them to show that he is listening.

* Family matters — community. In the film, a substance-abuser went back to her family on the mainland, and a single mother who had a subsidized apartment was lonely for the homeless camp community. This made me question whether giving someone their own home is really the answer for everyone. Instead of finding single-family apartments, maybe we could match two compatible families. For example, two single mothers could share an apartment, providing each other with friendship, support, security, and childcare assistance. A case manager could help the families come up with a co-housing agreement that covers “house rules” and chores.

* Family matters — marriage. In the film, a woman was pregnant, homeless, and already caring for other children. However, I can’t remember any mention of a father for the children, a husband, or a boyfriend. Public assistance programs seem to discourage marriage, but marriage is important for mental health and financial stability, especially when there are children. Maybe we could encourage marriage by 1) offering a one-time, one-year only tax credit for couples with one or more children who get married; and 2) following it up with a one-time, one-year only tax credit for couples who are still married after five years.

* Make current housing available. People complain that we are not building enough new, affordable housing. An alternate solution is to make the housing we do have more available for Hawaii residents. While I hate to advocate for any tax increase, maybe we need to impose an exorbitantly high tax on non-resident purchases of homes or apartments. This would discourage out-of-state and international buyers from buying residences in Hawaii, either as part-time homes or investments, and free those homes for Hawaii residents. It wouldn’t cost government anything, and the money from the tax could be designated for the affordable housing fund.

Have you ever been homeless? Do you know anyone who is homeless or on the verge of homelessness? What can we do to make a difference?

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