Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Helping the poor cover their rents a wise investment

Aug. 2, 2016

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Helping the poor cover their rents a wise investment
August 2, 2016
There are many forces driving Hawaii’s persistent homelessness problem, including the forces driving the housing market. A longstanding shortage of housing inventory, compounded by low mortgage rates that further fuel buyer demand, have made this an opportune time for property owners to sell. Whether the home is going to a new owner-occupant or being converted to higher rents, established tenants, some without the means to pay more, increasingly are compelled to move out. In other communities, tenants whose rental is sold out from beneath them simply sigh, pack and choose among numerous cheaper locations. Increasingly, in Hawaii, such options don’t exist.

Many of these are people living one small paycheck away from homelessness.Even more worrisome, as Honolulu Star-Advertiser writer Allison Schaefers reported on Sunday, is that many of those facing homelessness are elderly. Hawaii’s senior population continues to grow as baby boomers retire in large numbers, and so it makes sense that many of them, living on fixed incomes, would find it difficult to manage their increasing costs. Figures supplied by the Institute for Human Services show the tally of homeless elders in the IHS shelter on the rise. Seniors 62 and older numbered 89 in 2013, 6 percent of the total in the shelter; that number ticked up to 115 and 131 in the subsequent years; the count for a little more than half 2016 is at 207, or 12.3 percent of the shelter clientele.

Barbra Armentrout, 68, is one of the people Schaefers interviewed who escaped homelessness because she found an affordable rental some distance from her apartment of the past seven years in St. Louis Heights. But that was only after making two dozen calls and a dozen site visits before she found one that qualified for her federal Section 8 housing subsidy. Buttressing the safety net that keeps Hawaii’s poor in their homes should become a higher priority to prevent the population living on the streets from expanding further.

In April, the state awarded a $4.7 million contract to Aloha United Way to accelerate efforts to combat the homelessness problem. As originally conceived, the money was to be evenly divided between aid aimed at keeping the poor from losing their housing and efforts to re-house those already on the streets. Although only about $850,000 has gone out so far, the pattern is becoming clear. More than three- quarters of the money has gone as prevention aid — benefiting 281 families at risk of becoming homeless.

There’s some logic to this imbalance: It’s less expensive and more effective to keep someone housed than to wait until they are on the street. Even so, this does little to diminish the public perception that homelessness is an intractable problem. There are still many encampments in plain view throughout the state, but especially in urban Oahu. Efforts to get the chronically homeless re-housed — what’s now well known as the “Housing First” strategy — must continue to ramp up. It’s no small challenge. Many of the individuals and families on the streets need intensive help, from financial and job counseling to simply securing the documentation they need to access social services. But even if they are ready to be re-housed, there continues to be an acute shortage of affordable rentals available to them.

That means that the various small-scale projects to create units are necessary, but still not scaled up to where they need to be. Any comprehensive homelessness relief plan that finally emerges from local government — and there still isn’t such a blueprint in place — must propose workable alternatives. Encouraging the development of “accessory” dwelling units throughout Oahu is one example, but there must be other lower-cost options explored, including those with relaxed regulatory requirements. And the next time policymakers review the homelessness landscape, the experience of the AUW should be instructive. It may be that housing aid is more important than they had realized.