Hawaii’s Immense Homeless Problem

May 10, 2018 | General Information

Hawaii deservedly is viewed by the rest of the world as “paradise”. Even so people living in the islands, and their business and community leadership, are well aware of the fact that Hawaii faces some significant economic and human problems. The biggest ones are the cost of living and the fact that more than half of Hawaii’s people are struggling financially despite a booming tourist economy and full employment.

Even working several jobs and with frugal spending, a great many people living in Hawaii cannot make ends-meet and save money to cover future financial needs. That struggle affects every aspect of their lives and their children’s lives and all too often results in homelessness. Perhaps it sounds extreme, but credible government and research sources reported that as much as half of Hawaii’s population is a pay-check or two away from homelessness.

Number of homeless adults

Hawaii no longer has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country. With a rate of 44.9 homeless people per 10,000 people, Hawaii now has the second highest homeless population per capita. New York leads the nation. Hawaii has one of the highest rates of veteran homelessness in the nation. Hawaii’s age of death among the homeless is far below the national average, but this means that large numbers of homeless people in Hawaii are dying at an earlier age. Like elsewhere, however, drug history and homicides take the lives of many homeless people.

Most of Hawaii’s homeless population lives on Oahu: more than 4,400 people. Almost 60% are unsheltered. More than half of homeless people on Oahu are unsheltered: more than 70% are homeless individuals and more than 20% are families. Most people homeless for a year or more, the “chronically homeless,” are unsheltered. Their numbers have doubled in the last ten years. The unsheltered have been living on sidewalks, in parks and in other public places. The need for mental health and substance abuse services have been growing. The only good news in homeless statistics is that unsheltered numbers have been declining on neighbor islands.

To be clear at the outset, Hawaii is different than other communities around the nation coping with homelessness because of its higher costs and other local factors. But solutions basically are the same: no silver bullets or quick fixes will work. All communities dealing with homelessness need strategic, comprehensive, multifaceted solutions. But getting Hawaii out of the plague of a continuously rising cost of living will be very challenging. It will require extraordinary, unprecedented collaborations between Hawaii’s state government and the private sector.

Hawaii has some homelessness and housing solutions that have made small but promising dents in homelessness. Like Family Promise of Hawaii, these programs focus on providing ways for volunteers, nonprofits, and private sector partners to participate and share their resources. The model of this homeless program’s services and its positive benefits is well worth very close examination. But the scale of this community initiative needs to be multiplied many times over as quickly as possible.

Another very promising homeless program is Kahauiki Village. Kahauiki is a small community for homeless families off Nimitz Highway near Keehi Lagoon Park. Kahauiki built and provides permanent affordable housing for homeless families with children and employment within walking distance. Kahauiki resulted from business and nonprofit leaders, government, labor and many hundreds of individual volunteers working together, pooling skills and resources. However, Kahauiki Village required an emergency proclamation by the state government to provide free land, accelerate the approval process for infrastructure, and the creativity and willingness to take risks of the private sector. The Kahauiki solution involved — and absolutely required — an extraordinary public-private partnership.

Hawaii has the nation’s costliest housing. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported that Hawaii is the most expensive state in the nation for housing. In the least expensive county, Hawaii County, it costs $1,151 on average per month for a two-bedroom apartment, and $749 for a studio (also called an efficiency apartment). More than 50% of Honolulu renters are paying more than 30% of their income for rent.

The reasons for costly housing are clear: The cost of land and construction is usually high compared to most of the rest of the country; the permitting process can be arduous and costly; and building affordable housing most often requires free land and also subsidies. The demand for housing units in Hawaii, without consideration of affordability, is daunting. According to a recent report put out by Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Hawaii needs at least 65,000 additional housing units by 2025 just to meet normal demand, without consideration of affordability. That’s roughly twice the number of new units built in 2008-15.

Cost of living excluding housing

Increasing housing cost is only one component of the higher cost of living in Hawaii. The cost of food increased in Hawaii by 35 percent from 2007 to 2015. The minimum cost of food in Hawaii for a family of two adults and two young children is over $1000 per month. A Hawaii family pays an average of more than $500 per month for gasoline and other vehicle expenses. Most people in Hawaii do not have access to public transportation. The high cost of living is also driven up by the state’s reliance on imported oil for electricity generation and transportation. The average retail price of electricity in Hawaii is 33 percent higher than in the nation’s second-most expensive state, Alaska.

In addition to the high cost of living, a cause of homelessness is low wages. More than 60 percent of the jobs in the state pay less than $20 per hour and two-thirds pay less than $15 per hour. That’s less than half of what households need to earn in Hawaii for survival.

Bottomline: despite being frugal, at least half of the households in Hawaii have nothing left financially at the end of the month. They are working and living in poverty or near poverty even though, by federal standards, statistically only about 10 percent of the population lives in poverty. Many of these low-income households need food stamps (now SNAP). But many of these needy people choose not to apply for SNAP and other forms of public assistance because of the costs and difficulties involved in the application process. It involves time off work, costly transportation and, most important, potentially lost wages.

The fact that so many people in Hawaii barely make enough to survive seems surprising. The state’s unemployment rate is a historically low 2 percent; the visitor economy keeps growing; and Hawai‘i’s median household income is relatively high compared to the rest of the country. But for many people living in Hawaii, all it takes is a health crisis or a major car repair to cause a financial crisis. Too often, the story for struggling wage earners is: living paycheck to paycheck…mired in debt…no savings for emergencies….emergencies result in disaster.

A bit of hope for the homelessness crisis

The ever-worsening homeless crisis in Hawaii is getting a great deal of media attention. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now have joined forces to report daily stories on homelessness and raise awareness among the public and public officials about the gravity of the situation and the need to take action.