Moving in the direction of ‘Housing First’

Confronting Homelessness

For Maui, change is in the air, and the Homeless Alliance is working on some transformational changes for 2017.

We are moving toward a “Housing First” model. Our recent past has shown that things should adjust and the Homeless Alliance is making preparations for these necessary changes. Agency cooperation with data-sharing and needs-based evaluations will help people move into a permanent home more quickly through Housing First.

I have to admit that when I first started hearing about Housing First, I had my doubts. It took me a while to understand. Just what does this mean?

Then I started to realize that when it comes to homelessness, we need to move away from the past and move toward a method that works. With all the efforts being made and with all the work being done, homelessness continues to grow and be more visible in our community. What are we doing wrong?

On Maui, those who serve the homeless have done a valiant job working to end this dilemma. They have great ideas about needed training and support and work diligently to help the homeless learn how to maintain and successfully live in a home. All good ideas, all wonderful programs. The problem is that not all ideas and programs work. So it’s time to take a good look and tweak what is being done. Time to stop, step back and rethink the plan.

What’s different about the Housing First approach compared to past strategies? As the name implies, the primary focus of this model will be to move individuals and families into housing and then, after they are housed, offer them the services and training needed to sustain their housing. We were doing the exact opposite with housing being last after all the services and training — which sounds good but isn’t very effective.

By moving people into a home, much of the trauma that is synonymous with homelessness can be eliminated simply by providing the safety that comes from being behind four walls. Energy once spent on survival can now be refocused on healing, training and services so that people have a chance to become productive members of society or, at the very least, maintain a home.

A crucial principle of the Housing First approach is that support services and training can be more effective when people are in their own home. This method has proved to be highly effective in Utah, which has seen a 72 percent decrease in homelessness since 2005. Boston has used this model for six years and has seen a significant decrease in street homeless, with a 21 percent decrease of homeless veterans. USA Today reports that Phoenix has completely ended homelessness among vets.

This brings to mind my uncle who, like my father, was an Army veteran of the Korean War. But, unlike my father, Uncle Walt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lived on a farm in Idaho and one day he grabbed his hunting rifle and ran outside to shoot down the planes that he thought were attacking his farm. As he shot at the imaginary planes, his family was able to convince him to go back into the house. Family members were able to find the help he needed to recover.

When I look at Maui’s homeless vets, I find myself thinking about my Uncle Walt and wonder what they are suffering through. What if Uncle Walt were homeless? If he were homeless, this would have been a horrible tragedy for both Uncle Walt and the community he lived in. What’s the difference? Uncle Walt lived in the safety of a home and had the support he needed to recover.

The obvious benefit to the community is getting the chronically homeless off the streets and beaches, but an added benefit is that it saves money. As counterintuitive as this may seem, studies show that providing the chronically homeless with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers money. Who knew? Learn more at

The implementation of Housing First will take time, but training has started and I’m happy to report that the Maui Homeless Alliance is moving in this direction for the near future.

* Joyce Kawakami is a full-time volunteer, founder and CEO of Feed My Sheep Inc. As an active member of The Maui Homeless Alliance, she chairs the Awareness Committee. “Confronting Homelessness” is published the fourth Friday of every month.