Homeless advocates push for sustained support during virus

  • A shelter is set up along the fence to the West Hawaii Emergency Program and Hale Kikaha off Pawai Place in Kailua-Kona in April. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HONOLULU — Hawaii nonprofit organizations and the state’s homeless coordinator warned about a surge in newly homeless families and the need to continue funding social service programs as the economy shrinks because of the coronavirus.

Gov. David Ige’s Coordinator on Homelessness Scott Morishige said that six months to a year after emergency government aid and prohibitions on rental evictions expire, the islands are likely to see a jump in homelessness that could last for years, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Sunday.

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Large numbers of people became homeless in Hawaii after cuts to social service programs related to financial emergencies, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008-09 economic downturn commonly known as The Great Recession, Morishige said.

“It won’t be a one- or two-year spike,” Morishige said. “We’re likely to see a steady increase over time.”

The state’s homeless budget of more than $25 million per year depends on the state’s general fund, which is driven by tax revenue.

Laura Thielen, executive director of advocacy coalition Partners in Care, said a new generation of homeless families and adults could be even larger than the surge following America’s housing collapse that triggered the Great Recession.

“We are still living with those (budget) decisions,” Thielen said. “And we’re seeing more folks becoming potentially homeless than during the 2008 recession.”

Hawaii has made progress in reducing homelessness since the recession. The 2019 nationwide homeless census called the Point in Time Count resulted in Hawaii losing its ranking as the state with the highest per capita rate of homelessness.

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“We know that if they cut programs, homelessness is going to go up significantly, and it’s going to be a drag on our economy and state for many, many months to come,” said Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna, which operates family support and disaster recovery programs.

“When the fire starts is not the time to start cutting the fire department,” Normann said.

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