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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost
January 04
11:00 2015

The sun is setting on Waikiki Beach, and Koa still has a few hours before his 9pm shift cleaning the food court at the Ala Moana mall. “I’m trying to better myself,” he says, but being homeless makes this tough. He finishes work at 3am, well past curfew at most shelters, and police keep people off the beach from 2am to 5am.

Hawaii has one of the worst rates of homelessness in the country. Though its jobless rate is below 5%, pricey housing keeps even many workers on the streets. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu is more than $1,800—one of the highest in America.

On the island of Oahu, where three-quarters of Hawaii’s homeless live, sleeping rough has just got rougher.
On December 2nd Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, signed a bill that bans people from sitting or lying on the busiest public pavements between 5am and 11pm. Those who do so can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for up to 30 days. This is part of a plan that Mr Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption”. The aim, he says, is to get the homeless into shelters. Businesses in Waikiki, the centre of Hawaii’s $14.5 billion tourism industry, support the policy.

Similar crackdowns can be seen around the country, even as the stock of affordable housing—defined as costing no more than 30% of a family’s income—declines. (Nearly 13% has been lost since 2001.) Laws banning camping, sleeping in cars, begging and loitering in public spaces are increasingly common, according to the National Law Centre on Homelessness & Poverty. In the past two years, more than 20 cities have made it illegal to feed homeless people in public.

Such laws are counterproductive, says Jerry Jones, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. Otherwise law-abiding people end up with criminal records, making it harder for them to get back on their feet. A night in jail can cost three times more than a night in a shelter. Honolulu’s ban on rough sleeping has made the homeless more transient and harder for social-service agencies to find. Many are sleeping at the airport, ensuring that they are the first thing visitors see.

Several cities have reduced homelessness by using a different approach, called Housing First. Whereas typical schemes aim to get homeless people “housing ready”—that is, off drugs and in work—before placing them in homes, Housing First provides the home up front and then delivers the support needed to stay there. This saves money, says Matthew Doherty of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, as the homeless otherwise tend to ricochet between expensive services, such as jails, emergency rooms and detox centres. A study from Los Angeles found that the public saves over $27,000 a year for every person in such a programme.

Even in Hawaii, officials are taking steps towards a Housing First plan. In Honolulu, Mr Caldwell has promised $3m to house 100 of the city’s homeless and another $43m for more housing. But the city has offered few details, and the new homes will not be ready for years.

In the meantime, there is talk of sending the homeless to an encampment on nearby Sand Island—far from the tourists of Waikiki.

 

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