Grassroot Institute staffer Sebastian Koenig has been researching the issue of homelessness in Hawaii. This is part one of a three part series that looks at the problem, what has been done about it in the past, and how we might address it in the future.

The root of the problem

The increase in Homelessness in Hawaii is rapidly becoming the social issue that everyone worries about, yet no one is certain how to address. The effort to balance compassion for the less fortunate with concerns about the impact on business, tourism, and public facilities has left many grasping for the proper response to the issue. The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has undertaken a lengthy look at the issue of homelessness in Hawaii, beginning with the roots of the issue and leading to some possible ways to address it. In this part, we consider why the homelessness problem appears to be growing in our state.

When one considers the causes of homelessness in Hawaii, it’s not difficult to see why Honolulu faces different challenges than, for example, Minneapolis. The warm weather in Hawaii makes it possible to live on the streets year-round and wealthy tourists in a generous holiday mood offer the promise of a few extra dollars.

But there’s more to the issue than good weather and opportunities for panhandling. After all, the homelessness problem in Hawaii is not a new one. Nor does one have to go far to trace the causes of it. Anyone who lives on the island of Oahu is aware of at least one of them: the high cost of living–especially when it comes to housing.

Limited land and soaring housing prices make it very difficult to find or build affordable housing. No non-profit organization or company that might wish to build affordable housing can outbid a commercial enterprise for a piece of land in Hawaii. Not when there is a strong economic incentive to build more shopping malls and hotels that profit from tourism. As a result, those who live at or below the poverty line struggle to find four walls they can afford.

This is a problem not only in Hawaii, but also in other American cities where the price of housing is high. New York, Miami, San Francisco, and many other cities have faced increased housing problems due to the combination of a high cost of living, declining purchasing power, and a slow economy. Moreover, despite the recovery, poverty is still on the rise.[1]  Nor is poverty the only factor contributing to the homeless population. There are also addicts, the mentally and physically disabled, and young people (even teenagers) who may be runaways or victims of abuse.

One only has to walk through Fort Street in Downtown or Chinatown to see that this is not solely a poverty problem. Some of these unfortunate citizens hold loud conversations with themselves. Others shout at random people, while some show clear signs of drug abuse and withdrawal. For these people, housing is not even the first priority. First and foremost, they need medical and psychological care before anything can be done regarding their housing situation.

This might be the most obvious and most easily observed difference between the US and Europe on this issue. While one does encounter the homeless in Europe as well, it is far less likely to find someone with such obvious mental health and addiction symptoms (alcoholism notwithstanding). On some level this could be ascribed to the behaviors of the homeless or sociocultural influences, but it is also an indicator of the functionality of certain social services. A recent report on the Hawaii State Hospital, the only publicly-funded psychiatric hospital in the state, revealed fundamental shortcomings ranging from nepotism among certain high-ranking staffers to inadequate security measures for restraining violent patients.[2]

Given the many examples of incompetence, negligence, or outright scandal (consider the recent revelations about the care provided to veterans), it is understandable why so many Americans do not have any confidence in the institutions their tax dollars help fund. And yet, the hospital–which is operating over-capacity–does bear the responsibility of handling the criminally and legally insane. On some level, the question comes down to how a society chooses to handle treating those with mental issues, and a bias against institutionalizing the mentally ill (or inadequate facilities for doing so) will result in a higher percentage of homeless suffering from such disorders.

But there is more to the issue than the health issue. What makes it especially heartbreaking and difficult to address is the fact that the stereotype of the homeless as being primarily addicts or the mentally ill is not an accurate one. The problem may be an age-old one, but it has increased in recent years due to rising income inequality and the financial crash of 2008. Especially unprecedented was the effect on families and children. In Hawaii in 2010, 27% of its population spent more than 50% of their income on housing. That doesn’t leave the average family with much of a safety net. In fact, spending 30% of one’s income for housing and utilities is considered the sustainable level.  When the cost of living is factored in, a two bedroom apartment is nearly unaffordable for any Hawaii family with a combined income of less than $31 per hour. With such a small margin for error, dips in the economy and rising unemployment will be difficult to overcome. In 2010, 5,114 children in Hawaii were homeless.[3]

There is an argument to be made that socioeconomic factors not only contribute to the problem but also discourage efforts to fix it. The struggle that many working families must go through to keep themselves sheltered and fed leave little in the way of time, energy, or resources to help address the problem. However, that does not mean that the interest in helping is not there.

Studies show that those who generally give the highest portion of their income to charities for the poor are those only slightly above the poverty line themselves–no doubt because they relate to the plight of the poor and are sympathetic. But is it appropriate, fair, or even practical to rely on this kind of help to address what is truly a wider social problem?

We are then left to look to the state, non-profit organisations, corporations and wealthy philanthropists for help in addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Sadly, in many ways, it is an unattractive problem for the modern age of marketable charity. In a crowded marketplace, there are many charities that make for better press and lead to more prestige than aiding the downtrodden, physically and mentally afflicted people on our streets.

Is homelessness simply too overwhelming a problem? There is no “cure” to research, no easily identified cause that can be eradicated. Not only do people lack the resources (and sometimes the motivation) to help the homeless, but Hawaii’s economic policies weight the scales against those trying to help themselves. High personal income taxes and an overall tax climate detrimental to business and job creation make it harder for people to find a job. Hawaii is ranked 30th in “State Business Tax Climate Index”[4] and has seen its active workforce population decline. When a state embraces policies that not only make it difficult to afford to live there, but also make it hard to climb out of poverty, it creates a trap for those who live on the edge of poverty. Moroever, it creates a situation where an increased homeless population becomes an inevitability during any period of economic decline. The question that remains is how we can effectively address it.