HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One key finding in the Hawaii News Now/Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll on the homelessness, was that 71 percent of Oahu residents fear that the problem may discourage return visitors and harm the state economy.
Ward Research President Rebecca Ward has been doing polling in Hawaii for more than 30 years, and she has rarely seen the public so worked up over a single issue, and in such strong agreement.
"You rarely get 71 percent to agree on anything," Ward said. She also notes that many of the answers not only reflected strong agreement among residents, but also very few are undecided or don't know enough to answer the questions.
"They are experiencing it every day. They see the homeless so they are engaged. I think it probably reflects some frustration as well," Ward said. Her company was hired by Hawaii News Now and the Star-Advertiser to conduct the poll, which used land lines and cellular phones during the last week of July to reach 480 Oahu residents, sampled to match the demographics of the entire island population. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percent, but very few of the results were close enough to make the margin relevant.
Strong sentiments were expressed on several major issues:
- 73 percent said the problem has grown worse over the last year, compared with 58 percent when the same question was asked last year.
- 70 percent said their quality of life was being impacted by homelessness.
- 32 percent said Governor David Ige should be leading the effort to fight homelessness (18 percent said Mayor Kirk Caldwell should have the leading role).
- 69 percent said the state and city were not working well together (48 percent “Not Very Well” and 21 percent “Not At All Well”).
- 81 percent supported building additional homeless shelters at Sand Island and elsewhere.
- 71 percent supported the use of Sit-Lie Ordinances.
- 55 percent support sweeps of encampments, even if personal property is taken.
- 74 percent felt those living in the Kakaako encampment should be moved out.
The poll also asked about several tactics aimed at solving the problem, with the responders showing a pretty clear understanding of the choices facing government leaders, Ward said.
One finding could be a concern for advocates for the "Housing First" strategy to attack homelessness, which emphasizes finding long-term rental with subsidies for deposits and rent. When asked whether it was okay to give taxpayer money to homeless people to rent permanent housing, 53 percent said they oppose the idea, with 43 percent supporting.
On the other hand, Oahu residents seem strongly support of government construction of affordable housing, with 66 percent saying money set aside for a new state office tower should be spent instead on repairing public housing. There was also a strong majority, 62 percent, who said they would be willing to host a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.
Ward is cautious on whether that support would weaken when shelters or new affordable housing is proposed for specific areas. She pointed out that older people, who are more likely to own their own homes, were less likely to support homeless facilities in their backyard.
"So, I think there are concerns about housing values," Ward said.
The poll was large enough to break out responses to that question by geographic region. When asked whether homeless facilities would be welcome, Leeward Oahu was the most open (73%), followed by East Oahu (67%), Urban Honolulu (65%), Windward and North Shore (61%) and Aiea to Central Oahu (55%).
The fact that every area had a majority willing to accept housing for the poor is an indication of compassion towards the homeless, which Ward said shows up in several answers.
When asked to name what they feel is the number one reason for homelessness, respondents cited lack of affordable housing (33%) and very low income or unemployment (23%) ahead of all other answers. "I do believe there is compassion being expressed because these are causes outside of their control," Ward said.
Other causes cited were substance abuse (13%) and mental illness (9%). More negative assumptions were cited rarely, such as not wanting to work (2%), unwilling to follow rules (1%), family problems (3%) or coming to Hawaii to be homeless (3%).
The other clear message is that the public is not happy with the response of government, Ward said.
Asked to rate individuals and organizations on their handling of homelessness from one to five, with five being best and one being worst, the best rating for any politician was for Mayor Caldwell who scored an average 2.6, which Ward called "probably a weak C." The governor, the city council and the legislature came in second, third and fourth, although Ward says the different scores were so close that they fall within the margin of error. The only rating above three was for nonprofit service providers (3.2).
Residents also feel strongly that the city and state have failed to work together, with nearly 70 percent saying they were not working well together and 29 percent saying they work somewhat (26%) or very well together (3%).
Although conceding that his administration could have done better, Governor Ige pointed out that his recently-named planning team includes himself, the Mayor, money chairs and leaders of the council and legislature and the congressional delegation. He said the team approach will improve collaboration and raise the priority of homelessness and related issues, such as building affordable housing and programs to address mental illness.
Ige said the public anger is due to enforcement in Waikiki and downtown, which pushed many homeless people into more visible areas, "I do believe that the homelessness has begun to impact broader and more members of our community in a way that is increasing its priority," Ige said in an exclusive interview with Hawaii News Now.
Mayor Caldwell agreed, but also defended his tactics, which some have called inhumane, but others say have worked to reduce intrusive homelessness in Waikiki and Chinatown. He said even though many people said they've seen homelessness increase while he has been actively attacking the problem, he is not worried that it will hurt him politically. He cites the polls support for sit-lie laws and homeless sweeps.