Reconsider ‘housing first’ emphasis

Viewpoint

The State of Hawaii’s prioritized homeless services funding emphasis on “housing first” is in theory laudable. However, our state’s near absence of available housing units for the homeless, the recently legislated restrictive state mandates on homeless living space and our serious lack of and/or accessibility to mental health, substance abuse, medical and other treatment services for the homeless necessitate that these mandates be reconsidered, especially here on Maui.

The state is requiring that caseworkers at Maui’s only two contracted agencies, Family Life Center (FLC) and Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center (KHAKO), secure and maintain housing for our most severely disabled homeless people. In order for the caseworkers’ efforts to succeed, they will have to get them into the medical, mental health, substance abuse and other treatment and services they need as soon as possible. However, here again our reality is that these critically important services are just not sufficiently available and/or accessible. It will also be even more difficult for the FLC and KHAKO caseworkers to secure and maintain HUD landlords willing to rent units to these more severely disabled homeless people.

Of yet further concern is that the state completely cut all funding to the Salvation Army’s Outreach program as it did not deem these services to be in line with its “housing first” emphasis. As such, the Salvation Army here will have to drastically cut back on providing food, clothing and hygiene, and on case management services that have for years been many homeless persons’ source of support. And the state has not allocated funds for FLC and KHAKO, nor are they set up to provide these kinds of outreach services.

Not only has the state solely tasked KHAKO and FLC here with “housing first” mandates it has helped make impossible to meet, it will take away their funding in the name of “financial accountability” if/when they are unable to meet them. And although we know that Maude Cumming at FLC and Monique Yamashita’s staff at KHAKO staff will do everything they can to house and serve as many of our homeless as they can, tasking them to do what just isn’t possible and to completely cut funding for Maui’s primary provider of mobile outreach services puts many of our homeless at even greater risk now than before.

These concerns are real and urgent, and they should prompt the state to seriously rethink and retool its “housing first” emphasis by working more collaboratively with all the providers here. Rather, we first need to fund programs to build up our available housing and social services infrastructure necessary to make the “housing first” program feasible. To continue to do otherwise will certainly be far more costly in both public expenditures and human suffering.

* Richard MacDonald has been a rehabilitation counselor for the Department of Veterans Affairs on Maui since 1981. He has also been a board member of the Salvation Army and a member of the Maui Homeless Alliance for many years.

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