I’ve changed my mind about lots of different topics since I was young. Although I’ve always believed myself to be an expert on everything I’ve been passionate about at different times, that’s definitely not the case. My communist abolitionist self cringes immensely when I think about the c*nservative ideals I held as an elementary-middle schooler from being an indoctrinated childhood Christian all the way to my adoration of liberal politicians as recent as 2018. And even though I’m constantly evolving, the one belief I’ve held true since I was a tiny adolescent is that no one should ever have to suffer through homelessness. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been devastated by witnessing widespread homelessness in Hawaiʻi and in our common family vacation spots like San Francisco and New York City. Knowing that I’d never worried about food, water, or shelter my entire life while other people scrounged for food in dumpsters and slept on dirty concrete always felt extraordinarily cruel and unfair to me. I quickly learned at a young age to give folks whatever dollars I could grab from my parents or find in my fortunately full tiny wallet, which felt like a band aid on an issue that hurt my heart. The thought that folks might use the money I gave to buy drugs or alcohol truly never crossed my mind as it apparently does for so many others. However, even if someone were to buy non-food or emergency supplies with the dollars I handed off, those purchases would be more than okay with me. Giving money and/or resources away to others is a gift, not a loan for me to determine what folks can spend them on. And if substances like those previously mentioned bring some type of peace or joy for people who only know suffering, I’m even happier for them.
I realized recently that I haven’t ever written about homelessness and what people get wrong about the topic, so I felt now is as best a time as any to pen such a post. I was so fortunate to work alongside homeless neighbors for one year in my role as Community Outreach Court Coordinator and the best part of my job was speaking and connecting with my clients. I hated the bureaucratic nonsense that came along with a state job, but there’s absolutely nothing more fulfilling than knowing someone’s life is just a little more peaceful because I was there to support them. I’m not in that role anymore, but my partner and I recently connected with a houseless friend who we try to provide with resources, money, and food as often as possible and being there for him continues to bring me joy while I work in a new role that isn’t as client-focused. I’m devastated for our friend every time I hear another story of someone taking advantage of him, stealing from him, and treating him like utter shit just because he’s homeless. I also hate knowing that there’s not much I can do aside from providing him with basic necessities because of how the social services system in Hawaiʻi is set up when housing isn’t available and folks working in service provider jobs don’t really care about their target populations. I hope this post is a little bit informational for anyone who’d rather look the other way when a houseless person is asking for help or for those who share inaccurate ideals about people who are homeless.
- Shelters are incredibly unsafe, unsanitary, and unavailable! According to the State of Hawaiʻi’s Daily Emergency Shelter Vacancy website as of today, there are an estimated 70 available shelter beds on Oʻahu. However, according to Partners in Care’s Point in Time Count as of March 9, 2022, there were 3,951 homeless people on the street. If my math is right (which it usually isn’t), less than 1% of folks who are currently suffering from homelessness would have access to a shelter bed. The shelter vacancy site is also often inaccurate as beds are usually held for folks on the waitlist despite being listed as available. When shelter space is open, homeless folks have to worry about theft, robberies, drug use, physical and sexual violence caused by fellow homeless people and shelter workers alike, bedbugs, lice, lack of privacy, unclean beds and sanitation areas, confined movement hours, and restrictions on the amount of belongings and/or animals allowed inside. Cis women, femmes, and other queer folks are extremely unsafe housed in open bed spaces where they’re at risk of sexual violence and physical abuse. Hawaiʻi’s Institute for Human Services (IHS) has infamously dealt with bedbug infestations and difficult operating hours that kick homeless folks out at dawn and don’t allow them back in until late at night. It’s no surprise then that folks are constantly waiting around outside the shelter in the hot sun all day long until they can go back in. Some shelters only allow one or two large bags per person, forcing people to choose between their belongings and a night inside closed doors. Others don’t accept pets and we all know most of us—my partner and myself included—would never leave our loved ones behind.
- Transitional housing waitlists are far too long and the options are expensive. One of my clients I grew closest to in the past year spent two years living at a shelter with their partner while waiting for a transitional housing unit they could actually afford. Some units open for people on the waitlist, but they’re ADA inaccessible, far from bus stops, and/or far too expensive. Because my client didn’t receive enough financial assistance to afford the unit, they and their partner were going to be kicked out of the shelter for “staying too long.”
- Case managers often do not do their jobs. In my previous role I wasn’t trained to complete the VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool) with my clients to provide actual housing assistance to clients, but the case managers at certain service organizations who were either took forever to complete the survey with houseless folks or didn’t even update them on their statuses once the survey was finished with returned results. I can’t count how many times I had to send follow up emails to service providers begging them to help my clients with housing options and they truly didn’t seem to care. Case management as a job shouldn’t even exist in a perfect world but until everyone can live in a home, those careers are absolutely critical for people in homelessness. I’m still at a loss as to why people who are apathetic or jaded work in these types of service jobs because I’ve seen firsthand how frustrating it is to tell a client that someone will be there to support them and no one shows up. Case managers are often the one barrier standing in the way of homelessness and people in housing and if folks who cared were hired, the process could at least be a lot less painful.
- Houseless people don’t have access to vital documents, which prevents them from jobs, housing, TANF/SNAP, and healthcare. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that homeless people should “just get a job,” I would be able to retire like I wish to!! How does one think someone can get a job—especially in this economy—especially when folks are living on the street—especially when people don’t have addresses or working phones or birth certificates or IDs? When was the last time you filled out paperwork for a new job with HR? Quite literally everyone needs at least an ID or birth certificate or passport or driver’s license to ever get access to crucial resources like SNAP benefits, TANF assistance, SSI, health insurance, housing, and of course, jobs. Incarcerated people leaving prison also need the same type of identification to do literally anything when they’re released. There are a few organizations that claim to assist homeless people obtain their IDs like IHS, Legal Aid, and Waikiki Health, but when Honolulu Mayor Blangiardi’s goonsquad sweeps homeless encampments every morning, those same IDs that take forever to get are easily thrown away. And the process cycles and cycles…
- Phones are absolutely crucial for folks living in homelessness. My partner’s and my dear friend living in homelessness has a working phone, but it dies extremely quickly because he doesn’t have access to charging stations or outlets. He recently asked a convenience store worker to charge his phone for him for a little while and she forced him to pay her $20 just to charge it 60%. The gall of these people to profit off of someone else’s suffering. Our friend, just like all other homeless folks, needs his cell phone to call us for help, use the internet, reach out to case managers and health workers, and look up the nearest places that offer help. Phones are no longer luxuries and they shouldn’t be treated as such. When houseless folks’ phones die or are disconnected, so are their case workers and health or housing navigators from them. There goes their spot on housing waitlists because uh oh—they haven’t been in contact with their case manager in x amount of time, so their case is closed. There goes another bench warrant issued for them because their phone with all of their court information/access to Zoom is gone, so they have to increasingly fear any type of interaction with cops. There goes the contacts they had for job services, health insurance, health care, SNAP benefits, food banks, etc.
- Unsafe living conditions on the street contribute to worsening physical and mental health issues. Mental illness are prevalent in our homeless community, which can obviously be treated through non-carceral mental health services (we absolutely do not believe in mental illness facilities no matter what and social workers can definitely be cops if we allow them to be). However, nothing except for safe housing and individually-specialized resources can fix the devastation that homelessness imparts on folks’ physical and mental health. The toll that sleeping on the sidewalk, in a ripped tent, or a battered and broken car takes on houseless people’s minds and bodies is absolutely calamitous. Imagine hearing people rummaging through belongings, screaming, revving engines, harassing others with guns and batons (talking about the cops of course) at all hours of the night while trying to sleep. Imagine how little sleep homeless folks actually get because of the constant noise and being forced to move at the crack of dawn or right before bed because the cops are conducting another sweep. Imagine having no one but yourself to talk to for decades and guess what that lack of connection does to one’s mind.
- Homeless people do not want to be homeless. This statement is one of the most infuriating ones to me because it’s so preposterous and offensive that I almost can’t believe it when I hear it. It’s true that some houseless people choose to live outside instead of going to shelters or transitional housing, but consider why in the points I previously mentioned. And if you already forgot, I’ll re-share them: shelters are incredibly unsafe, unsanitary, and unavailable and transitional housing waitlists are far too long and the options are expensive. In what world would anyone ever choose to sleep on the ground instead of in a warm bed with clean water, soft linens, and a stocked bathroom? Maybe when those places don’t exist for the majority.
- EVERYONE deserves to live in a safe, clean, stable, and affordable home. Our legislators, politicians, and some service providers for that matter love talking about ending homelessness. They gather in their Zoom meetings and go over the same talking points about what’s available and how many folks aren’t “taking advantage” of the resources. They’ll add those meetings to their resumes and share quotes in articles about how those in power actually care about homelessness. They want to think of small ideas and run on ending homelessness in their campaigns so they can keep getting elected every couple of years. However the root answer is simple: give people homes. I know lots of people say that no one should have to work multiple jobs to afford a place to live. I say no one should have to work at all to afford a place to live. Everyone—no matter how much they earn or contribute or need—should be able to thrive in a home of their own with lights, air conditioning, clean water, working appliances, soft furniture, food, nice clothes, and enough space for their loved ones. I hate that I’m lucky enough to have all of these things in my apartment while others don’t have anything and I am hopeful for the day where others are as fortunate as I am.