November 20, 2008

Homeless in Paradise: Who's the Bad Guy?

"Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" - Psalm 82:3-4

This week is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which is fitting because I recently finished a class project researching our local homelessness situation here in Hawaii. As you might imagine, the facts are grim: Hawaii has the 4th highest homeless rate in the nation, shelter use is up 19% this year and one-third of those in our shelters are minors. Stereotypes of the "lazy drunk male" simply do not reflect reality since most of these individuals are women and children who look just like anyone else you might see in the supermarket or on the school playground.

Even though over 6,700 people statewide visited a shelter in 2007, researchers estimate that the majority of those experiencing homelessness are "unsheltered", meaning they live outdoors or in places not intended for human habitation such as parks and beaches. According to Connie Mitchell, the director of the Institute for Human Services (IHS), Oahu's largest shelter, the two primary reasons people become homeless in Hawaii are unaffordable housing and domestic conflicts. Rising unemployment rates and the economic downturn are only making things worse.

Everyone agrees that we have a serious problem on our hands, but who's the bad guy in all of this?

Some people blame the police for sweeping the homeless from park to park. But then again, the police are only enforcing "illegal camping" laws that have been enacted by the government. So I guess we could blame the government, but then again, our elected leaders are understandably concerned about the economy which is largely dependent on tourists, who are less likely to spend their money in Hawaii if there are homeless people all over Waikiki and and Ala Moana Beach Park. Maybe we should blame the greedy landlords who keep raising rents only to evict people for being unable to come up with the money. Of course, these landlords are only trying to keep up with property taxes based on the high cost of land, which I suppose you could blame on real estate developers that swoop in from the mainland trying to maximize their profits. Speaking of profits, we can't leave out the health care industry, whose pricey medical bills can quickly bankrupt someone who has no medical insurance. And what about the drug dealers who get people hooked on crystal meth or the prison system that releases people onto the streets with no job skills or a place to live? Speaking of responsibility, it's always a safe bet to point the finger at all of those deadbeat dads that don't pay their child support.

Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to blame homeless people themselves for making bad decisions with their money and relationships. Or we could blame their extended families for not taking them in. Or their parents for not raising them well. Or their teachers for not expecting enough from them. Or the local church for not welcoming them with open arms. Have I left anyone out? Does anyone still think this is an easy problem to solve?

To her credit, Gov. Lingle's administration has developed a fairly detailed 10-year plan to tackle this complex issue, but homelessness in Hawaii will never end until we learn to see the big picture which includes the small part we all can play. Some of us will be advocates while others will be volunteers. Some will give of their resources while others will offer their prayers. Some might even get creative with alternative approaches like the folks at the Waikiki Health Center who came up with the Care-A-Van Homeless Outreach Program in order to meet people wherever they are.

Everyone has a stake in this issue because we all benefit from a solution. It's time to stop looking for the evil villain behind the curtain and take responsibility for our brothers, sisters and children who have no place to call their own.

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