Hawaii Declares Homelessness Emergency

Photo: Cathy Bussewitz/AP Photo.
Hawaii has declared a state of emergency — and it's not because of a volcano or some approaching tropical storm. It's because the state's homeless population is growing too big to be adequately cared for. Gov. David Ige declared on Friday that the state will spend $1.3 million between now and July 2016 on building temporary shelters and working on finding permanent housing for individuals and families who need it.

“The lesson learned is that great things can be accomplished when we all work together,” Ige said in a statement. “Homelessness remains a serious issue in every county throughout the state.” Hawaii has approximately 465 homeless people per 100,000 residents, the highest rate per capita in the entire nation. The exorbitant cost of housing has driven up the number of people without a permanent place to live, and the warm climate year-round make homelessness slightly less harsh than in states with cold winters.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to homelessness: There are approximately 2.5 million homeless youth in the U.S. — many of them LGBTQ.

Though it’s easy to think of Hawaii as an island paradise, many Hawaiians are not so welcoming to those families who can’t afford shelter. For example, State Rep. Tom Brower has made it a point to take matters into his own hands by aggressively destroying the possessions and shelters of homeless people. He once took a sledgehammer to 30 shopping carts, and he was injured in a fight with some teenagers at a homeless encampment earlier this year after he refused to stop filming them.

And homelessness is on the rise in cities all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York. Los Angeles declared a state of emergency over its homelessness issues; police shot and killed an unarmed homeless man on L.A.’s Skid Row in March.

There are some places that could provide Ige with good advice as his state makes its plan. Utah has been following an aggressive plan to eradicate homelessness, and Salt Lake City and Phoenix both managed to put an end to chronic homelessness among veterans. Milwaukee also unveiled a plan this summer aimed at ending chronic homelessness, and other cities may soon follow.

So far, Hawaii's plan is focused on short-term aid to people in need rather than big-picture shifts, but if the number of homeless individuals stays high, Ige and legislators may need to think bigger.

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