With COVID Beaten, Homelessness is the Next Pandemic

Chinatown Homeless

By: Peter Van Buren

“What stands out for visitors?” I asked our guide during a Honolulu Chinatown tour with my mainland guests. “Always the same,” said the guide. “The homeless. Even people from cities like San Francisco and New York are surprised how many we have here. I’m waiting to see how the Japanese and Koreans respond if they ever start traveling again.”

You can’t miss his point. During our brief walk through Chinatown’s markets we saw a disturbed man dressed only in his underwear touching himself, several seriously street-worn people begging, and watched the fire department respond to a prone homeless man who was dead or simply drugged into paralysis. When someone in our party needed the toilet, the shopkeeper apologized for having to keep it locked to prevent misuse by vagrants. Despite some great tasting food, it was hard to keep up a holiday spirit. Same for when we passed the tent cities and parks overtaken by homeless along a drive on the Windward side.

Pre-COVID there were an estimated 6,458 homeless in Hawaii. Some estimates put the figure as high as 15,000, the highest per capita in the nation. The Big Island saw the biggest jump in homelessness from 2019-2020, a 16 percent increase. On Oahu the homeless population is up 12 percent.

In comparison, San Francisco before COVID counted over 8,000 homeless persons, and while COVID-era numbers are hard to pin down, one measure is overdose deaths among the homeless have tripled. New York has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The number of homeless there today is 142 percent higher than it was 10 years ago, and currently at the highest level since the Great Depression. Some 3,000 human beings make their full-time home in the subway.

In the end nobody actually knows how many people are living without adequate shelter except that it is a large number and it is a growing number and there is nothing in line to lower it, only to find new ways to tolerate it.

We have in many places already surrendered our public parks, pavilions, and libraries. The hostile architecture of protrusions and spikes which make it impossible to sleep on a park bench are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of our cities now, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram.

Keep in mind that all of these homeless people coexist in a United States whose wealthiest citizens have their own spaceships. New York is home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world. How is it the nation’s wealthiest city and poorest city are the same place?

I’ll put the bottom line right here: I don’t have a slam dunk solution for the homeless problem in Hawaii. I have only the perspective of a citizen who is fed up.

Public space belongs to the entire public, not to a few individuals. That is a fundamental responsibility of government. Yet many of our beaches and parks are off limits because any permission to live on public land seems more important to our government than the mass of citizens’ rights.

Homelessness is a public health crisis, exposing us to human waste and communicable disease, and encouraging rat and scavenger problems inside encampments. As a result, the average life expectancy for Hawaii’s homeless is 53, almost 30 years less than the general population. Faced with that statistic, it is hard to listen to progressive voices who say some of the measures outlined below are cruel.

Homelessness is a public safety problem, consuming law enforcement and EMT resources while creating violent street crime. Homelessness is a threat to our second largest industry, tourism, as visitors find themselves navigating the worst of our civic problems in the midst of a vacation.

Homelessness in Hawaii is also a financial problem. Homeless people make up only 3.61 percent of Medicaid users but consume 61 percent of the two billion dollar annual budget.

What to do? A starting point is to stop believing homelessness is a problem exported here from the mainland. Reporting on this urban myth is extensive, but facts and numbers are always in short supply. And by the way, people in L.A. and San Francisco say the same thing, albeit blaming their homeless on Greyhound not Delta.

In fact, Native Hawaiians are over-represented in the homeless population. On Oahu, 51 percent of homeless identified as Native Hawaiian despite accounting for only 10 percent of the population. Natives were thus over-represented by 210 percent. For comparison, Caucasians and Asians were underrepresented by -24 percent and -81 percent respectively. We need to face ourselves, they are not foreigners on our streets.

We also know what “solutions” do not work. Simply building more shelters is not an answer. The population grows faster than even a determined building schedule, and shelters quickly become dirty and dangerous places to live. Given our year-round beautiful weather, outside is often preferable. Residents in current shelters should be given a choice: take advantage of supportive care if you want to stay, or work to maintain the shelter if you can. Without some reason to care, residents do not and housing degrades quickly.

One critical point is understanding 1 in 4 homeless adults here suffer from a mental health problem. We need to consider a much more aggressive approach to mental health care and substance abuse programs. The era of voluntary participation may need to end; the rights of the few are encroaching on the rights of the rest of us. The current strategy of “they won’t seek help, what can you do?” is not sustainable.

One answer is more aggressive use of “Assisted Community Treatment.” This Hawaii law requires treatment when an individual is deemed a danger to themselves or others due to severe mental illness or addiction. It is intended for the most severely incapacitated homeless individuals, many of whom suffer from untreated schizophrenia but would benefit all of society if more widely put to use. It has been used only about 100 times statewide. This strategy promises progress instead of simply moving the homeless problem from a public park to someone’s backyard.

Faced with COVID, the governor eagerly took on emergency powers, dramatically reshaping society by decree in the face of a public health crisis. With COVID realistically now in the rear view mirror, he and the legislature should attack this public health problem with equal zeal.

The answer to homelessness does not lie in slamming shut school doors and chasing away tourists. But if they can do that, and do it without regard to cost, then that paves the way for more radical ideas for dealing with this new pandemic. The tools are there; what about the will, Governor Ige?