Housing First is making a dent in homelessness

Program’s aim is to get people off the streets first, then provide the needed social and medical services

Maude Cumming

Maude Cumming

LAHAINA — Before the State of Hawaii started pushing its Housing First program, the Family Life Center in Kahului just didn’t have the resources to find housing for the people who needed it most, Executive Director Maude Cumming said.

But now, agencies like the Family Life Center are getting the funding and assistance they need to quickly get housing for the chronically homeless, who make up about 10 to 20 percent of the homeless population but require the lion’s share of community resources, from police to hospitals to homeless agency services.

“If we can get them housed and stabilized, that would free up the resources for the majority,” said David Nakama, Maui County Homeless Program coordinator.

Nakama and Cumming were part of a seven-person panel that addressed homelessness, housing and development before an audience at the West Maui Senior Center on Tuesday. In many ways, the Housing First program is changing the way shelters aid the homeless on Maui.

Housing First is in its third year on Oahu and expanded to the Neighbor Islands earlier this year. The concept focuses on getting people off the streets and into housing, and then supplying them with social and medical services. Officials working on the issue of homelessness reason that if people have the stability of housing, it’s easier for them to maintain other aspects of their lives, whether it’s keeping a job or staying off drugs and alcohol.

A panel that includes representatives from the county, nonprofits and developers talks about homelessness and housing Tuesday at the West Maui Senior Center. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

A panel that includes representatives from the county, nonprofits and developers talks about homelessness and housing Tuesday at the West Maui Senior Center. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Housing First has found early success, according to the University of Hawaii, which has been tracking families placed in permanent housing on Oahu since November 2014. In a study released over the summer, the UH College of Social Sciences found that 89 percent of clients remained in housing. Many said they decreased their use of drugs and alcohol — 80 percent reported never or rarely using alcohol after one year, and 92 percent reported never or rarely using drugs.

Clients also reported a 64 percent decrease in visits to the emergency room, often a frequent stop for quick medical attention for those living on the streets. The number of arrests among clients decreased by 55 percent after one year in the program, and 61 percent after two years.

Now, Maui County is focusing more on the chronically homeless. According to the federal government, a chronically homeless person has been unsheltered or on the streets for at least 12 months, has a disability or has been homeless four or more times in the last three years.

To assign agencies clients to be housed, Maui County uses something called a coordinated entry system, which is the “operational arm of the Housing First approach,” Nakama said. It’s a computer database of known homeless individuals in Maui County.

“The system prioritizes them by need,” Nakama said. “It’s a very objective system. It’s not subjective anymore where naturally you’re going to work with people who are easier to work with. That’s out the door. You’re getting the toughest ones now, and those tough ones are the ones using up most of the resources.”

Recently, Family Life Center housed 11 chronically homeless individuals, including three families who had been homeless for 15 years and “had lost hope,” Cumming said. Sometimes people refuse help, but Cumming said that the center’s job is to “continue to make our presence known.

“We continue to encourage them because we never know when personal circumstances will change their minds,” Cumming said. “If we have a constant presence, then they’ll know that we do want to assist and we are available. So we never want to close the door on someone.”

Monique Yamashita, executive director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola, said that the organization “changed our model this year where everything is about housing.” The nonprofit now focuses on helping people increase their income and get their documents in order. It has housing navigators who meet with property managers and landlords, and housing retention specialists who help newly housed tenants follow the rules of their leases.

“The amount of time that they stay at our shelter has significantly decreased,” Yamashita said. “Before we would have families that would stay up to two years in our transitional shelter. . . . We had families there for a long amount of time, and actually longer than they needed to be. It didn’t really help them as far as getting permanent housing.”

But one of the biggest challenges is finding affordable housing or affordable rentals in the first place.

If people can get into a rental, “they hopefully can save for the down payment, which is one of the biggest impediments and hurdles to being able to purchase a home,” said Buddy Almeida, county housing administrator. “We need more low-income rental projects being built just as much as we need affordable single-family homes.”

But developers often see rental projects as “a money loser,” Almeida said. The county has tried to offer developers rental housing credits and other incentives.

Kaloa Robinson, a project manager for Stanford Carr Development, said that having easier access to the state rental housing revolving fund — which the state recently removed the cap on — and easier access to low-income housing tax credits would also help. Now, developers can only apply for the tax credits once a year. Robinson said it makes more sense for them to apply whenever they have a project.

State Rep. Angus McKelvey, whose district includes West Maui, Maalaea and north Kihei, and Maui County Council Member Elle Cochran of West Maui both advocated for affordable housing in perpetuity.

McKelvey said that the state and county also need to look at “decoupling ourselves” from U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding. Federal funding requires the state and county to open housing projects to everyone instead of limiting them to Hawaii residents.

“Housing First has been making a dent, but the underlying big crunch is the hidden homeless, the soon-to-poten-tially-be homeless,” McKelvey said. “If we can’t create pro-cesses for affordable housing in perpetuity, then I think . . . a lot of local people are going to find themselves in bad situations. (Housing First) helps, and we need it, but we need a whole bunch of other things.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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