This is it: proposed legislation to solve our homeless, affordable-living crises

By Rep. Cynthia Thielen (Kailua-Kaneohe Bay)

It’s official: In 2016, homelessness ranks as the No. 1 issue facing Hawai‘i state government, said global research firm OmniTrak in its January report, “The People’s Pulse.”

The pervasive problem has long since blurred the former stereotypical divide of “us” and “them.” 2016’s nouveau poor include “us” – children; retired teachers; parents; military veterans; the chronically ill and drug addicted; our elderly; and even those whose IDs and credit cards were stolen. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate.

The Honolulu Police Department’s official stance on homelessness describes our top statewide concern as reaching “epidemic levels” and proceeds to list some of the department’s biggest challenges:

  • No homeless shelters exist on the Windward side.
  • Courts usually dismiss cases in which the homeless are cited and arrested for offenses such as park closure because they have nowhere else to live.
  • The homeless don’t fear the police, enforcement of the law or jail time, and they return to the streets or parks, which they call home, upon release.

“The homeless problem is spinning out of control,” HPD Major Ryan J. Borges of the Kaneohe precinct recently stated to me.

Indeed, the staggering statistics prove his point. This island, where nearly 5,000 homeless people live, falls far short of the demand for empty beds. Statewide, we reportedly have some 7,620 homeless people.

Recently, a 76-year-old Windward resident, who’d spent her career teaching, held a master’s degree, rented a home and lived on her monthly $847 social security check, was near the brink of homelessness. Her landlords had reportedly decided to sell the property where she lived and she couldn’t afford to rent a safe, decent unit elsewhere. Her plight hit the media and it took a compassionate response from the public to help her. When this happens to a well-educated career woman, who is immune?

On a larger scale, we’re No. 1 in the entire U.S. for the highest rate of homelessness per capita. We have 487 homeless persons for every 100,000 people in our state.

The evidence is obvious, overwhelming and in our faces, from statistics to street scenes to ranking No. 1 in an awful way. With the Legislature in full swing until May, now is the time to take serious action to effect forceful laws. I am – with the introduction or cosponsoring of two vital bills.

The first addresses funding – last October, Governor Ige literally declared a state of emergency to handle homelessness – by proposing the deposit of a higher percentage of existing tax monies into the state’s Rental Housing Revolving Fund, which goes toward developing and rehabilitating affordable and low-income housing.

Currently, the revolving fund is capped to receive no more than $38 million annually. My legislation would raise the amount to “no less than 50 percent” of all funds collected from the state’s Conveyance Tax, which is levied on all property sales. This also allows for better alignment with Hawaii’s economic conditions and fluctuations, and its effect on the housing-availability situation.

When property sales escalate, it signals less available affordable housing because more people get priced out of the market, including renters.

However, the increased sales would then result in more monies – 50 percent of the statewide Conveyance Tax total – paid into the revolving fund. This should pave the way for more funding to increase affordable housing.

Additionally, these funds should enable Hawaii to capitalize on the tiny-homes movement that’s sweeping the globe and trending in Hawai‘i. Also known as micro-homes, these structures are usually energy efficient and eco-conscious. It’s a concept that’s familiar in Boston, Paris, Hong Kong, Manhattan, Japan and China. In Seattle, a tiny-homes village was recently built on church property.

Micro-housing and its off-shoot versions can range anywhere from 8 feet by 12 feet to around 250 square feet. They can feature amenities such as fans; showers; hot and cold water; and toilets. At some locations, there are shared facilities for restrooms and kitchens, similar to a dormitory setting. As a temporary alternative to street living, micro-housing can serve as transitional housing for adults and children as they prepare to move into permanent, affordable housing. It can also give them some dignity.

These dwellings are sometimes built on government land that is vacant, not in use or under-utilized. Land owned by churches and nonprofits are also solid options. On Oahu, there is plenty of unused and under-used land. In the face of 10,000 people waiting for half a decade or longer to get into state-run public housing throughout Hawai‘i, these are viable and necessary solutions.

My second proposed bill promotes safety first for each of our citizens whether homeless or housed. Hawaii’s existing law allows for the involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill persons only when there is imminent, or at-hand, danger to either that person or others. Given that our nation has recently suffered the worst violent crimes in its history attributed to mental illness, I am cosponsoring a bill with an improved standard of involuntarily hospitalization.

Rather than wait for imminent danger to appear – oftentimes too late to prevent killings and other heinous acts – this proposed legislation allows for the commitment of individuals, who when based on their recent behavior are likely to harm themselves or others. This less-restrictive pro-safety standard is consistent with the law in most other states, where serious or substantial risk, likelihood or probability of harm is sufficient.

Mental-health treatment may then be available at the hospital or psychiatric facility before any self-harm or harm to others occurs.

So, this Legislative session is the time to put our long talked-about ideas into action and “start doing.” Further delay invites further decline that we, our law-enforcement agencies and our entire state can’t handle. We must move ahead.

I look forward to passing this legislation in the midst of Hawaii’s rising homeless population, skyrocketing housing prices, stagnant middle-class wages, limited land space, increasing crime and threatened safety. Let’s do it.