Solving Our Homeless Epidemic

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - July 12, 2006
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Whatever the history books say about Gov. Linda Lingle, I believe they will be kind. Yes, she’s our first female governor. She’s a Republican who managed to break the Democratic Party’s political stranglehold on the state’s highest office. There is no doubt she has been a trailblazer in many ways. But mostly she has proven worthy of her high approval ratings because the woman is - quite simply - a leader. Let’s hope she turns out to be a great one.

The governor has detractors, of course. Politics is never a gentle game and the players must be willing to take the knocks along with the praise. But the proof of Lingle’s depth of character is that she does not back away from a challenge.

Case in point: the homeless. The last time I was on the Leeward Coast I was shocked at the number of tents on the beaches. I had seen them before, of course, anyone who’s been out that way has. But this time there was visible evidence that the problem had exploded. It was a tragic sight, even frightening, not because the people living in these tent cities were scary or threatening, but because there were so many of them. Hundreds of homeless families hidden in plain sight.

The city administration gave warning that it would do as it did at Ala Moana: Clear out the parks, clean them up, and give them back to the people. All well and good, but the homeless are people, too. They and everyone else understand that they don’t belong on the beaches. But most of these folks aren’t there because they like slumming it on the sand. They simply have nowhere else to go.

Lingle stepped in. Instead of assigning blame, she reached out and invited all parties to become part of the solution. She actually went to the Leeward Coast, not only to see the people for herself, but also to talk to them. And more importantly, to listen.

We all know the problem doesn’t have a quick fix. As a young reporter 19 years ago I reported on the homeless families living on Sand Island. The issue wasn’t a new one back then, and it has only gotten worse. So many reasons contribute to the intractable nature of homelessness - there is bureaucracy to fight, NIMBYism to overcome, and the desperate lack of affordable rentals. The people who find themselves homeless often have a host of personal and social problems to deal with, and lack of money is just one of them.

What I like about the governor and her approach is that she wasn’t afraid to get her power suits dirty. She saw the problem, rolled up her cuffs and strode right in.

Lingle doesn’t have all the answers - no one does - and she acknowledges the first step is temporary: Just get them into shelters, for heaven’s sake. Put a roof over their heads, and then, when they’re living like real human beings again, work on a more permanent solution.

As the governor said, it is shameful that so many of our citizens are living in squalor with no place to call home. She is embarrassed that it is happening in our Aloha State, because we can and must do so much better.

It takes a leader to help us understand that the problem belongs to us all. But it takes a great leader to follow through - and motivate an entire state to fix it.

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