Friday, February 12, 2010

Helping homeless has many obstacles

Photo: Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Rep. Rida Cabanilla's op-ed in today's Honolulu Star-Bulletin:

Helping the homeless is not an easy matter
By Rida Cabanilla

As chairwoman of the Housing Committee in the state House of Representatives, I am responsible for seeking solutions for homeless people living in our public places.

This issue is complicated by the fact that even if government provides adequate shelter, a significant percentage of the homeless refuse to go to the shelters for various reasons. Due to the established rights of people in this country, government's hands are sometimes tied.

For example: The Disability Rights Center is a state agency that advocates for the mentally ill and disabled. A percentage of mentally ill people are also drug addicted. This agency does not provide funding for food or shelter for the homeless but protects their civil rights. It is not a simple matter of picking up the homeless and taking them to a shelter. They cannot be forced to live where society feels it is right for them to live.

In addition, homeless people can be arrested if they violate the law by littering, panhandling, urinating in public places, etc., but they also enjoy due process. Who is willing to testify that a particular individual is urinating on the corner of Hotel and River streets?

We also are faced with the NIMBY factor — "not in my backyard." The most logical places to put shelters are where the homeless gather, like Waikiki, Ala Moana or Chinatown. Unfortunately, the mayor's Riverside Project in Chinatown for the mentally ill and drug addicted homeless was killed by public opposition.

Government also must deal with liability for the homeless. Shelters are operated by nonprofit organizations. Emergency shelters charge the state an average of $42 a night per person. Only a couple of these shelters accept those with drug addiction problems. The rest do not, citing the liability issue and the safety of others. Some shelters require drug testing for their clients; understandably, homeless who are actively doing drugs shy away from these shelters.

What can government do? In 2006, Gov. Linda Lingle asked the Legislature to appropriate millions of dollars for construction of emergency and transitional shelters. Community organizations and thousands of individuals mobilized to help with housing, job placement, education, training and counseling for the homeless.

Most of the proposals before us now involve funding that we do not have. We are starting with a $725 million state deficit this legislative session; an amount that will rise to $1.18 billion dollars in 2011.

People who are temporarily homeless due to loss of employment are being helped and are the easiest to help. The chronic homeless are those who cannot be helped or do not want to be helped.

The challenge before us is to determine whether we should shift resources from other worthwhile programs or cut government services. The pie is finite, unless we raise revenue. To increase services for the chronic homeless means raising taxes or reducing services in other departments.

I know that many are unhappy to see the growing number of homeless people on our streets, but the public must be made aware of the basic choice before us.

I urge residents to consider these options and to share their opinions with their legislators.
State Rep. Rida Cabanilla is a Democrat representing District 42 (Waipahu, West Loch and Ewa).

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