Hawaii grappling with homeless emergency

Marketplace Contributor Oct 28, 2015
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Hawaii grappling with homeless emergency

Marketplace Contributor Oct 28, 2015
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Tracy Martin and his family have been homeless for more than two years. During that time, they’ve gone through more than a dozen sweeps, like a recent one in Honolulu, where some of their belongings were tossed into a dumpster.

“They make it hard when they do these sweeps,” Martin said. “People have got to stay home from work and a lot of people just don’t go looking for jobs because they don’t know if a sweep is coming.”

The governor of Hawaii has declared a state of emergency over homelessness in the islands. That’s so he can free up $1.3 million for homeless services and a new transitional shelter. The announcement came shortly after Honolulu officials cleared the homeless encampments where Martin and his family had been staying. They were among 300 people who lived there. State officials said more than half were relocated to temporary housing or nearby shelters, including a shelter run by Jerry Coffee, the clinical director for the Institute for Human Services.

“We took a good many of those folks,” he said. “We brought in eight families, just in the span of about two weeks.”

A new homeless camp has popped up near the site where there was another encampment. 

Local shelters like his have been busy, and not just because of the recent sweeps. An annual homeless count shows there are more than 7,000 homeless people in Hawaii, making it the highest per capita state for homelessness in the nation. Coffee hopes the emergency declaration will finally make homelessness a priority.

“Some very visible encampments really prompted them to acknowledge the crisis that, frankly, has been visible for some time,” Coffee said.

Hawaii’s declaration comes on the heels of similar actions taken by the cities of Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Using emergency proclamations to tackle homelessness is something of a new phenomenon, said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“It does seem to be something of a trend,” she said. “And it’s a trend that I think reflects the unfortunate reality that homelessness is a national crisis.”

Since the big sweep of the encampment where Tracy Martin and his family lived, some homeless people created two new camps nearby. Hawaii’s governor announced plans this week to clear them, with enforcement expected to begin next month.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Institute for Human Services. The text has been corrected.

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