It is long established that Hawaii is well known for its remarkable beauty, culture, and ecological diversity. In fact, according to the Hawaii Tourism Board in 2013 alone, over 8 million tourists enjoyed the bounty of Hawaii and all its splendor, which resulted in over 14 billion dollars in visitor expenditures. However, what may not be as well known is that statewide, Hawaii has one of the worst rates of homelessness in the nation. Though jobless rates in Maui are now below 5%, rising housing prices and stagnant wages continue to keep affordable housing for individuals and families difficult, if not unattainable, to come by. In fact, recent research suggests that families with children are now among the fastest growing segment of the homeless population! A significant sector of the homeless population has been deemed the ‘working poor’ (incomes fall below the poverty level) or ‘liquid-asset poor’ (if a family were to experience a sudden loss of income, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it would result in them falling below the poverty line within a three month period). How many people in our own community, including ourselves, may meet such a definition were our personal circumstances to suddenly change for the worse?
Therefore, it is clearly important that affordable housing options be in place to provide us with options to prevent homelessness. Currently, low income, affordable housing options in Maui are scarce and have been identified as priority by the Mayor in the recent State of County address. It is not uncommon for existing affordable housing programs to have wait lists that exceed 2-3 years. Unfortunately, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – Section 8 program, which is administered locally by the County of Maui – Housing Division Office discontinued accepting applications in 2012 due to the waiting list becoming so long! This means that individuals looking to acquire HUD housing vouchers are not even able to apply at this time. And even if a family already has HUD, there are significant challenges associated with actually finding rentals that are HUD approved or landlords willing to consider working with this program. As a result, the majority of individuals whom eventually acquire housing vouchers are disheartened to have their vouchers expire without securing housing in time. Therefore, it is understandable to now see how individuals and families can become homeless so easily here even when they have assistance.
So, what happens when individuals and families become homeless? It can be extremely devastating and stressful for families. The financial costs to society are also substantial with reported increased usage of emergency medical, criminal justice, and child welfare systems, amongst many others. It is often very difficult for individuals and families whom experience first time homelessness to become re-stabilized and to integrate back into mainstream society. As a result, chronic homelessness can easily follow. So what can we do to help alleviate this crisis?
While this issue as a whole is incredibly complex, they’re maybe a few things that might be done to deal with this dilemma on a local level. It is critical that we as a community write and advocate to our local elected officials regarding the importance of these issues. Advocate regarding increasing the minimum wage in Hawaii and that more low income, affordable housing programs become prioritized in Maui. Support local organizations and agencies that tirelessly work hard to address this issue on an ongoing basis. Work to promote the HUD – Section 8 program and encourage landlords to consider renting to individuals whom have been accepted into this program. Advocate that the value of HUD vouchers be increased to accurately reflect the real costs of housing in Maui. Additionally, while there is well established stigma in place related to the ‘culture of poverty’ or those considered ‘low income’, it is important to challenge such perceptions and to consider giving individuals and families a fair chance, based on the knowledge of what really constitutes the ‘working poor’ and/or ‘homeless’ in today’s world. Again, many of the persons who comprise this population should not be overly generalized as simply being mentally ill, lazy, or substance dependent, but rather are often hard working and marginalized individuals and families struggling to make it here on Maui, and who cannot find rent that is affordable or available. Everyone has a fundamental human right to housing and therefore, let’s all do our part and take an active role in genuinely addressing this issue for the betterment of our community – Aloha!
Image Credit: Meredith Richmond