The film director and producer of "No Room in Paradise" appeared on Sunrise this morning to talk about the impact of his documentary, 3 months after it aired. Anthony Aalto said that some progress has been made, but we have a long way to go. Here are some of the issues he addressed:
Q: It's been three months since your documentary first aired right here on Hawaii News Now. It created quite a stir. More than a million people watched the trailer, members of the Legislature asked you to testify, we were flooded with comments. I am interested to know if you think any of this attention has moved the needle in terms of our political leaders and the reality on the streets? But first I wonder if there have been any major developments in the lives of the people in the documentary?
Answer: Fixing the lives of people who are chronically homeless is not just like flipping a light switch. Even if we're able to help them get off the streets and into subsidized housing you still have to contend with the issue that made them homeless in the first place. It's often a case of taking two steps forward and then one step back which means that as a community we have to show patience and persistence as well as compassion. Take the case of Nancy, who in some ways is the central figure in the film. When we first met her she was living in a tent by the Kapalama Canal with her 5 children.
Q: Yes, let's take a look at a clip from the film to remind us. In this scene… (set up scene). So how is Nancy doing today?
A: Child Welfare Services took all her kids away because she was still using ice. As a result, she lost her 3-bedroom apartment and IHS moved her into a studio. Now I know some people in the community might say "Taxpayers helped her get housed, she had 5 kids and a new-born baby and still she wouldn't give up the drugs? To hell with her." But in some ways losing her kids was what she needed to start putting her life back together. It was such a painful blow that she is determined to do whatever she has to, to get them back. That motivated her to quit the drugs. She has almost completed three months of drug rehab, she's seeing a therapist, she's taking anti-depressants and she's working with CPS to reunite the family.
Success with the chronically homeless does not always travel in a straight line. There are those who believe that having to take care of all her kids was such a struggle that it never allowed her the opportunity to focus on herself and deal with the many horrible things that happened to her as a kid that led her down the path to drugs. You don't see it in the film because we didn't have the space to go into such detail, but in one interview Nancy told us about her father, an illegal immigrant who was a drug dealer and a pimp who used to abuse her mother until he was eventually deported.
Now you can dismiss such talk as bleeding heart liberalism. Lock her up and throw away the key. Leave her to fend on the streets. The thing is that those responses are not cheaper. In the end they cost us more as a society. The time and money that goes into Child Welfare Services, the cost of Family Court, of monitoring foster programs, of providing support to the kids. The policing of our streets, the sweeps, the judicial system, prison. Or the constant use of EMS and hospital emergency rooms. It all swallows up millions of dollars every year. And that is without even thinking of less tangible costs – the impact on tourism, the impact on the conscience and the morale of the community.
You know the national best practice for case workers dealing with the homeless is that each case worker should have no more than 10 clients each. But in Hawaii each case worker has nearly three times as many. If Nancy had had more intense case management before she lost her kids, could that have been prevented? I think so. Think of all the money that was spent on her case.
There is no doubt that in the long run, if we invest in the desperately needed housing and social services needed to help the chronically homeless stay housed, we will reap big savings. We will save lives, we will save families and we will save taxpayers money.
Q. So is there any evidence that our elected officials understand that? Are we starting to see a change in attitudes?
A: I'm glad to say I think so. I know there are those who are frustrated that our Governor is not a podium thumping populist, but I kind of like the way he works quietly and diligently to tackle the issues. His administration is already working to include behavioral issues in our health care system and looking for ways to cope with children who have adverse childhood experiences so that they don't grow up to be homeless or addicted. Those are initiatives that won't bear fruit until long after he has left office. His proposed budget nearly doubles the money for homeless services compared to last year – which means more outreach workers and more case managers. And he also wants to double spending on affordable housing.
Q. How about members of the Legislature? Any sign that they are getting the message?
A. Yes. Senators Will Espero and Josh Green asked me to testify at the last meeting of the Housing & Homeless Task Force. At that meeting Senator Espero said he planned to introduce legislation to have the state issue very ambitious long term bonds to finance the construction of affordable rentals. Both Senators said they are also looking at ways to help the poor, such as raising the minimum wage. So I would say things are looking up.