Hawaii has a major problem with homeless people. The year-round great weather makes Hawaii one of the best places in the world to live rough. In my three weeks on Oahu, I have seen hundreds of homeless persons.
Unsurprisingly, now, as twenty-years ago, I repeatedly hear the urban legend that other states give their homeless a one-way plane ticket to Hawaii, sending the homeless to an attractive destination and foisting a potential problem onto another government.
Living without a fixed place of residence the past several months has given me a personal appreciation of the plight of the homeless.
First, getting mail is a problem. The Postal Service does not rent boxes to individuals who cannot prove their identity and demonstrate a fixed place of residence. Mailbox services, of which I have used two, supposedly have the same rules. Thankfully, their rates are lower than are the Postal Service's rates and their personnel more understanding. I receive little mail, but some of what I receive is vital, e.g., credit cards or mail from financial institutions.
Second, opening a bank account without an address – at least a mailbox somewhere – is probably impossible. Again, firms and personnel have been cooperative, bending rules that require not only a mailing address but also a fixed place of abode. However, I suspect that requirements for both a mailing and physical address can easily become an insurmountable for many homeless people.
All of the above contributes to the financial plight of the homeless, some – probably a minority – of whom are entitled to social security (old age, disability, etc.) or have other sources of income that they may find impossible to access. In other words, the system contributes to exacerbating and perpetuating the problems of the homeless.
Third, some homeless people have cell phones. I saw a woman visit a Satellite City Hall office in Honolulu while I was there registering my car. She came in, sat down, plugged in her phone, and let it charge. I wondered: Could she, if necessary, get a replacement phone? Would she have difficulty signing up for an email account? Where could she access her email account or surf the net? These items are not luxuries; they are how our society functions and connects people one with another.
Fourth, many of the homeless have mental health issues. For example, while her phone was charging, the homeless woman in the Satellite City Hall office sat by herself, taking no note of anyone else in the room, and carried on a conversation, complete with hand gestures and facial expressions, with an invisible partner. For others of the homeless, the mental health issues may involve depression, addiction, and other problems. Seeing people lying on the sidewalk in the middle of the day, their few possessions – most of which are apparently worthless – piled around them, underscores how many homeless people are homeless precisely because they cannot cope, even in the best of times, with twenty-first century life.
Fifth, some of the homeless I see are infants or children who are living rough with one or two adults, presumably at least one of whom is their parent. I wonder if an adult's mental illness has caused the family's problems or if an adult's unfortunate choices have resulted in their homelessness. If the latter, then helping the family get back on its feet represents a great social investment. I've never met a mentally healthy person who wanted to live on the streets (and I spent several months, early in my ministry, working with the homeless in Nashville). And if the former, then I doubly concerned about the children's welfare: not only are they living on the street but their primary caregiver(s) lacks the skills to care for self, let alone care for others.
Honolulu has enacted sit-lie laws that criminalize sitting/lying on the street in the same place for 24 consecutive hours. Honolulu has also empowered its police officers to move the homeless out of certain tourist and commercial areas, e.g., Waikiki. The laws have shifted the homeless from one area to another but do nothing to address the real problem.
Incidentally, I could extend my observations about the homeless to include comments about their difficulty in obtaining transportation, their need for sanitary facilities, their right to healthcare and food, etc. Similarly, the homeless can impede business and make other citizens feel uncomfortable if not unsafe. Unlike some cities, I have not seen Honolulu's homeless begging, trying to wash windows of cars stopped at traffic lights, or engaging in many other problematic behaviors.
The Institute for Human Services (IHS), founded by an Episcopal priest decades ago, has undertaken an initiative to help the homeless get off the streets. In about a third of the cases, IHS has helped the homeless move into a shelter. In about a third of the cases, IHS has connected the homeless with family who have taken the first in and will provide ongoing care. And in about a third of the cases, IHS efforts to help have produced no discernible, significant results.
Imagine two-thirds of the homeless no longer living on the streets! Criticizing those results is easy. Achieving better results may be impossible. A community that cares about its citizens can improve life for everyone by establishing top-notch group homes (a better long term alternative than shelters) and by reconnecting people with family.