By Robert A. Stodden
When confronted with community challenges we consider unacceptable, we often intervene in ways that actually accept the problem as a fact of life—as pointed out by columnist David Shapiro ("Accepting the unacceptable is a fact of life for Hawaii," Volcanic Ash, Star-Advertiser, Oct. 18). Homelessness is an example: Our leaders, the media and fellow community members here seem locked in a cycle of temporary solutions. Acceptance of homelessness as a way of life is reflected in our use of language and our responses to homelessness. Persons who are homeless are categorized as a class of people with multiple challenges resulting in not having a place to live—not something anyone would consider desirable.
By accepting the unacceptable as inevitable, we compartmentalize situations, marginalize people and develop solutions to meet our own needs—not the needs of those who are homeless. Almost daily, reports about "conducting sweeps of the streets," “forcing people into shelters" and "passing sidewalk sit/lie legislation" make it clear that something isn't working. These approaches are short-sighted, costly and unsustainable, and they contribute to continued dependency upon public assistance and further stop-gap programs.
Having a place to live in Hawaii is costly, requiring employment skills leading to a good salary as well as access to affordable housing. Becoming a person who is homeless must be debilitating, sacrificing self-respect and control over one's life. The slide to homelessness involves being unable to meet rent or mortgage payments, being evicted, depending on others to double-up on housing. These experiences are demeaning and damaging to the human spirit. Spending months or even years crammed onto a couch or in an extra room with relatives and friends until finally having to move on could not be uplifting. Spending nights in shelters and days wandering the streets could not be satisfying.
For some, the slide to life on the street may mean living with their possessions in a vehicle, until they can no longer handle the high cost of car ownership here. Landing on the street for the first time is described by many as absolutely "scary." Trying to be safe and protect one's family, children and possessions become a constant struggle. It's difficult to think about or focus on anything else. New friends are those fellow street folks you hope can be trusted to not steal from or harm you.
We need to focus on lifting up persons experiencing homelessness, not dehumanizing by approaching the problem with unsustainable, quick fixes that get the problem out of sight but make people even more dependent. Homelessness is a series of events that happens to people. Changing how we respond to homelessness will help to rehumanize this situation.
Secondly, each person who has experienced the events leading to homelessness needs support that helps them move beyond their situation. People need to be empowered and supported in re-establishing a sense of worth and becoming productive. This is an important step in once again becoming valued, contributing members of their communities.
Sustainable solutions to homelessness must lead to inexpensive, well-made, permanent housing. Education and job training give people skills for quality employment with salaries to pay for housing.
In Hawaii, we have what's needed to support persons who are homeless to once again become contributing members of the community with permanent housing. Significant expertise and help are available in the University of Hawaii system, state and city/county departments and nonprofit programs.
Let's not accept homelessness as a fact of life in Hawaii.