HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Surgeon General is touring parts of Hawaii this week to get a first-hand look at the state’s homeless crisis.
Dr. Jerome Adams says problems in the islands go much deeper than a lack of housing.
Many times, the root cause of a person’s homelessness has to do with drugs, a mental health issue ― or both. Adams says if the state doesn’t do more to beef up its behavioral health resources, the problem is only going to get worse.
For years, local government has touted “housing first” as the answer to Hawaii’s homeless crisis.
The program’s goal is to move a person off the street and into someplace permanent as quickly as possible then provide support as needed.
But oftentimes that level of help isn’t readily available.
“We aren’t simply going to fix their problem by giving them housing if we aren’t also treating those behavioral health issues,” said Adams.
On Tuesday, Adams met with Hawaii’s top health officials. While he agrees housing is key, he says it’s not enough.
“I think the challenge there comes in that if we give people housing but we don’t address all these other issues we’ll never be able to provide enough housing to meet the need,” said Adams.
State Director of Health Bruce Anderson said the state’s shortage of behavioral health resources only gets worse the farther you are from Oahu.
“If people are in crisis, they have to put them on an airplane and send them to Honolulu for stabilization which costs upwards of $20,000 every time that happens,” Anderson said.
He says the state is in desperate need of about 230 short-term stabilization beds for people with substance abuse and mental health problems.
“Right now everyone’s going to the emergency room," he said.
The Health Department is currently accepting proposals from several agencies in hopes of bringing more beds online sometime next year.
An array of behavioral health services will also be provided at the H-4 homeless healthcare center when it opens in Iwilei.
As the state begins to restore mental healthcare, the Surgeon General says there needs to be a simultaneous effort to prevent people from becoming homeless.
“We want to catch people from falling off the cliff,” said Adams. “But we also want to stop people from getting to the cliff’s edge in the first place.”
Adams will continue his tour Wednesday morning in Iwilei before returning to the mainland.