Ka Wai Ola

By Jon K. Matsuoka

As with many of our chronic and seemingly intractable social problems, despite our efforts, homelessness only gets worse with time. As ranking elected officials pledge to solve, or at least put a dent in the problem, Hawai‘i continues to have one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the U.S. There are many different causes of homelessness: deinstitutionalization of the chronically mentally ill, general psychiatric and substance abuse issues, exportation of homeless people from other places, and of course, Hawai‘i’s high cost-of-housing.

The last and most ostensible reason is also the most imminent. Political leaders and appointed officials are ignorant as to their role as both abettor and fixer of the same problem. While encouraging, or at least approving, major developments in places like Kaka‘ako, they unwittingly drive up housing costs as off-shore investors scoop up premium ocean view units. These units are priced well beyond the pay grade of most Hawai‘i residents and mitigation is often framed as a tokenistic gesture that allocates a fraction of new units to “affordability.” In the meantime, they push forward to transform prime agricultural lands into suburbia, or to loosen height restrictions on condominiums that block the view-planes of anyone living ma uka of the shoreline.

Building more and more housing might be a temporary boon for construction and curb housing pressure, but it is unsustainable on an island with a finite land mass. Elected leaders, urged on by short-sighted business interests, apparently will not stop until all developable land in Hawai‘i is encased in mortar.

While there might be a surge in tax collections, it is never enough to fund programs needed to contain the social viruses that accompany such change. This mentality has driven us beyond 10 million tourists each year and a proposal to build yet a bigger telescope atop Mauna Kea. In the 25 years that I served as an expert witness on social and cultural impacts for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation we won only one case – a case quickly overturned by the “powers that be” in Hawai‘i. On the face of it, the process appears participatory and fair. But beneath the surface lurks discreet forces that know too well how to work the system.

While they argue that more housing is needed for local families, Hawai‘i bears the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of out-of-state home ownership. The core of Hawai‘i residents earn meager wages while working multiple jobs, but they must compete for housing against legions of global investors. Under a free-market veneer that smacks of new-age colonialism, those not of this land or orientation are steadily taking over and calling the shots.

Most Hawai‘i residents are one pay check away from slipping through the cracks, yet chambers of commerce lobby against raising the minimum wage. It’s “bad for business” they claim. Once rich offshore investors tip the scale of home ownership, locals will be further relegated to the sidelines, and homelessness will be endemic and irreparable. Hawai‘i is quickly trending towards disparate groups of malihini “haves” and kama‘āina “have nots.” Homelessness represents the most severe class of symptoms that not only signal the system isn’t working, but like “extreme weather,” is a prelude of things to come.

Government sanctioned interventions focus on low-hanging fruit such as banning plastic straws and bags, while looming issues of housing and general wellbeing are addressed through half-baked and palliative actions; or worse, homeless are being swept and chased from place to place and out of sight of tourists.

These are acts of ignorance, callousness and victim blaming. As they attempt to appear responsive, politicians plug empty gestures into the gaping holes of our social fabric and hope they hold until they leave office. Like generations before them, they simply kick the can down the road until it re-emerges in crisis. Highly noble efforts like the Kahau‘iki Village, Family Promise, Helping Hands, Institute of Human Services and others do what they can to address the issue, but by design they treat symptoms, not the cause. Behind every fortunate soul who finds a safe and decent living space are droves of others yearning for the same.

Band-Aid efforts are useless in a time of crisis. Daring and creative solutions are needed that test the limits of conventional economics and constitutionality. Chronic and complex problems must be met with radical, sophisticated solutions and sustained political will.

Instead of throwing good money at stop-gap measures for appearances’ sake, our brightest humanitarians and social artists must be consigned and authorized to fix these festering problems. They took a long time to evolve and will take at least as long and a lot of know-how to resolve. Citizen land ownership laws in Palau and enlightened capitalism models out of the Philippines are useful templates for social development and prevention via self-determination and the strengthening of communal bonds and safety nets.

As a society we must come to terms with the fact that western economics and systems of remediation have failed us. Extreme social disparity and apocalyptic climate change tell us as much. Systems sourced from self-interest eventually fray and disintegrate, but those built on interdependence are forever abiding. The ‘ike-driven righteous action is within us. Our challenge is moving it to the forefront of all that guides us and return advantage to those vested in a just and compassionate society.

Jon K. Matsuoka was Dean of the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at UH Mānoa and President and CEO of Consuelo Foundation. He is currently the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Hawai‘i Tokai College. He is a board member of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, InPeace, Project Dana, Living Treasures of Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i Civil Rights Commission, and the Papakölea Community Development Corporation.