Both Seattle and Honolulu share an ongoing, complex struggle to address homelessness. Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency for homelessness in the islands on October 16. And on November 2, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine also declared a state of emergency for homelessness in Seattle and King County.
Honolulu lawmakers have been criticized over the last several years for measures aimed at solely driving the city’s homeless population out of Waikiki and tourist areas. Critics of the measures say they criminalize homelessness and do not provide ways toward affordable housing and essential services.
A recent resolution passed by the Honolulu City Council on November 4, however, requests that the city look into the feasibility of establishing hygiene centers and undertaking a pilot program. The resolution also directs city officials to consult with local hygiene service providers as well as the Urban Rest Stop program in Seattle, run by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI).
The Urban Rest Stop program in Seattle provides a clean, safe, and welcoming facility where individuals and families experiencing homelessness can come and use restrooms, laundry facilities, and showers. All services are provided at no cost to patrons.
This past October, Honolulu City Councilmember Joey Manahan visited LIHI’s homeless services in Seattle. Manahan spoke with the International Examiner about these latest efforts.
International Examiner: Tell us about your visit to Seattle and what you hope to bring back to Honolulu.
Honolulu City Councilmember Joey Manahan: In a nutshell I’m studying your homelessness solutions here. We’re looking into the housing programs that you have here. More specifically I like the work of the Low Income Housing Insititute with [LIHI executive director] Sharon Lee. What caught my attention [were the] the broad-based solutions. You have multiple levels of entry where a homeless person can go seek services or seek housing. For example, you have tent cities and low income housing solutions and everything in between.
The Urban Rest Stop really caught my eye the first time I came here last year because I thought of it as a good solution for us in Hawai‘i. A place where people can go take showers, wash their clothes, and then if they wanted to get services then they could. … I thought that was a very practical solution for us since we have a housing crisis in Honolulu. More than anything we lack the housing. I mean, that’s why we have homelessness. We haven’t built housing—I was in the legislature the past six years prior to my term on the council and in the recession years we didn’t focus on building any housing. We were tight on money. We focused primarily on keeping people employed, keeping the jobs at the state level, keeping people working during those times. Also, one of the ways we were trying to boost the economy was invest in construction projects, but we were focusing all our projects in the schools, the repairs and maintenance of the schools. So housing kind of took a backseat. We invested heavily on the human services side so we had health programs, insurance, those types of things, but without the housing there to back it up the people were still unsheltered.
IE: How would you describe Hawai‘i’s homeless situation?
Manahan: It’s a big problem. We have people who don’t have a home because there’s a lack of housing, the existing inventory of housing—the houses on the market now—it drives the prices up. So a typical house going on the market right now would start about $600,000 to $700,000. Most of us really can’t afford that. So the people who can afford that are living outside of Hawai‘i. They come in and they invest and it basically drives everybody’s property values and the prices up for a house. So for us—for the locals who live there—if we can’t afford it, it’s not like here in Seattle where you can go to the suburbs, where you can move out and look for someplace that’s more affordable. Unfortunately [in Hawai‘i] because you’re on an island there’s no other place to move but out—literally out to the mainland, right? I mean, that’s the next closest place for us. We’ve basically pushed everybody out because of these higher home prices. These higher rents are pushing people out but with nowhere to go we create what we call a diaspora. We basically push our working families out.
IE: What is driving the push?
Manahan: It’s basically switching to a global economy. Hawai‘i used to be an agrarian economy. We used to have a healthy agriculture industry. We used to farm sugar and pineapple. But those farms have moved out to Asia because labor’s cheaper. So a lot of the work force has kind of been absorbed into other jobs. Tourism is the big driver of our economy, state’s economic engine, but it’s a lot of service jobs. There’s not a lot of living wage jobs that you can work. What I mean by a living wage is you can work one job and you can afford your rent, your gas, your food and all your expenses. Most of us have to work two or three jobs just to be able to sustain our life in Hawai‘i. So it’s difficult. That’s your choice. If you can, work the two or three jobs, or basically your other choice is to leave.
IE: The City and County of Honolulu has been criticized for its treatment of homeless/houseless people with its ongoing sweeps. There also seems to be growing resentment for homeless people as the crisis becomes more visible. What do you think is the driving cause of negativity towards homeless people?
Manahan: We started off in Waikiki. I mentioned that tourism is the state’s economic engine. Waikiki generates most of the tourism business we have in the state, a majority of it. So it generates the most general excise tax, which is a tax we levy on the entire state, that helps us pay for our schools and other services that we provide at the state level. Prisons, hospitals, healthcare, medicare, human services. All that comes from tourism and it’s generated in Waikiki.
So when the hotels came to us with the issue of homelessness—homeless folks who were basically trying to get to the hotel properties to use their bathrooms, take showers, even stand in the buffet line sometimes. And the guests were starting to complain. These are guests who probably saved up for their vacations all their lives and it’s not the impression they thought of Hawai‘i. Some people started writing the mayor back. Basically the businesses in Waikiki said we needed to do something about the homelessness issue. So with a lack of housing all we had to turn to were these sit-lie ordinances basically sweep people out. When we implemented those, people started getting swept out, but they still needed somewhere to go so these encampments formulated in Waikiki started taking root in other parts of the island. Some of these got pretty big.
In my district, where I’m close to the airport, Kalihi, in Kapalama Canal we had an encampment of over 100 people, it was about 60 tents at the highest point. There’s close to maybe 200 people on the canal at the highest point: families, couples, individuals. But because there was no place for them to go they were using the canal as plumbing, it was the enabling factor. They would pitch their tent because it was somewhere they could go and go to the bathroom. I saw a need for an urban rest stop—bathrooms and showers, right? I said that was a basic need, that’s why they’re out here. And if they weren’t trying to use the canal then they were going to the businesses trying to tap their faucets and doing damage to the property. So that’s where the complaints were coming from, that’s where the pressure from us, from the policy standpoint. As a member of the city council, the pressure is on us to do something, but with a lack of housing, all we really have to turn to are the sit-lie ordinances. Really, it’s not a solution.
That’s why I’m here. I’m looking for housing solutions. We’re invested heavily on the human services side. We can go out and give people health care, but we have to go out and find folks. But if they get swept they they won’t go back to the same spot. Or they might—but it’s just difficult.
IE: What did you see in Seattle, specifically with the Low Income Housing Institute, that you really liked? What were you thinking of implementing in Hawai‘i?
Manahan: The first thing that attracted me to LIHI was the Urban Rest Stop. I checked out the one in Downtown last year and thought it was a great idea. In the absence of housing, this was something we could do. Not only would people be coming in voluntarily rather than being swept into services, we could navigate and point them to services that they need specific to their situation whether it’s work force housing, whether it’s senior housing that they need or other. But they would come in voluntarily. … That’s the thought and that’s still the driving thought for me, for my district. We still have large encampments similar to Kapalama canal. … Along the airport in the lagoon area there’s huge encampments out there for the same thing. It’s the enabling factor of the water. People need the running water to be able to do their business. At the same time people are tired of getting swept, so they go farther and farther into these areas that are harder to get to and they stay there because they know they’re not going to get swept or we’re not going to get to them, so that’s not good either. So by putting an urban rest stop in these areas, I think it’s a more compassionate solution. You’re kind of inviting them back, saying, “Hey, take a shower. Let’s try to get you back on track.”
Chinatown was our first attempt and it needs to be expanded. That’s what I’m seeing [Sharon Lee] for. How can we expand that by consulting on staffing as well as the actual planning and design of the urban rest stop. Because I think you have to take in the plans and designs prior to construction so you can maximize the space. You have to have all these things in your mind when you’re constructing it already. Sharon and LIHI have proven [practices]. They’ve been doing it for the past 20 to 15 years now. For me, it’s a proven best practice. Really it’s a really practical need.
IE: What motivates you in addressing the homelessness crisis?
Manahan: I think about how I would want to be treated if the issue was on the other foot. If I was out there living on the street, this is how I would want to be treated. The other thing that drives me is the homeless families. That breaks my heart to see kids camping on Kapalama canal. That’s harsh because I go speak at the schools and I can’t help but think that some of these kids are out camping on the street. At the end of the day they don’t go home, they have to go to a pitched tent in a canal and that’s not a good situation for them. They might find that that is normal and that’s not okay.
IE: What is the long term plan?
Manahan: For the long term goal, we have to build housing. I think the city and the [State of Hawai‘i] need to decide what role they’re going to play to build housing. The state is more equipped to build the housing in terms of the funding. Also, they have most of the land. As a core service—we provide the core service for the city and the county—we should be providing housing first.