Page title

A Hawaiian Approach to Sustainable Housing

Main page content

The HousingASAP program’s approach starts at the top, by helping organizations improve the services they are already providing.

Hawaii is not just the land of palm trees, sunshine, black sand beaches, and volcanoes; it also has one of the highest rates of people experiencing homelessness per capita in the United States. With a steep cost of living, an economy that is largely dependent on the low wages of the tourism industry, and little housing stock that is accessible to lower-income families, the 50th state faces many challenges.

The January 2014 point in time count determined that nearly 7,000 Hawaiians were experiencing homelessness, out of a population of 1.4 million. The fiscal year 2013 homeless service utilization report showed 13,000 individuals had used a service. Learn more about point in time counts at the Alliance to End Homelessness.

But through its HousingASAP program, launched in 2014, the Honolulu-based Hawai’i Community Foundation (HCF) has created a network of providers who serve families experiencing homelessness, in the hopes of finding them permanent, sustainable housing.

HCF, a philanthropic institution that provides support to nonprofit organizations across Hawaii, recognized that the county and federal governments were focused primarily on chronic homelessness, while the needs of families experiencing homelessness remained largely unaddressed. With support from 14 funding partners—some HCF donors, some corporate and private foundations, and the Kresge Foundation—HCF invited state agencies to apply to take part in HousingASAP. Eight agencies were selected, representing half of the family shelter providers in the state, as well as half of the available 4,112 beds.

“What we were looking for was a critical mass of providers who were ready to improve the services that they provide using the Housing First–type approach to improve three big outcomes,” says Tammi Chun, vice president of programs for HCF. Those outcomes are getting more families from shelters to permanent housing, doing so in a more timely fashion, and ensuring that they remain housed. The concern about timeliness stems from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standard for moving someone into permanent housing: 20 days. But in Hawaii in 2013, the average length of stay for a family in an emergency shelter was 90 days; for those in transitional shelters, it was nearly one year—350 days.

Hawaii’s Unique Challenges

Part of the problem is that there is insufficient housing stock, an issue that Hawaii’s reliance on tourism exacerbates. The arrival of popular services such as Airbnb, the short-term rental program, is resulting in properties being taken out of the residential market and used as vacation rentals. At the same time, hotel vouchers are not a viable solution. Because so many hotel units have been converted to timeshares, the demand is high for regular hotel rooms and rates are astronomical. Chun says the state needs about 50,000 units per year of affordable housing.

“People who were having trouble finding housing during the recession are having trouble finding housing now,” she says. But HousingASAP is not about building more units or funding direct services; its intent is to help organizations learn best how to work with what is on hand. “People need to be more creative,” says Chun, adding that they also need to improve the services they provide.

“We are working on the issue of helping the providers be more efficient and effective in the services that they have, to get people into available housing stock,” says Chun. Leaders and representatives meet every other month to learn how to organize and train their staff and board members to support the Housing First model, particularly for families. They are being taught how to use data to be sure services are appropriately matched. Board members and organization leaders have commented that, while they sometimes receive grants and donations to provide services, they have never received support for training or organizational development and they are grateful for the opportunity.

How the Program Measures Success

HousingASAP is a three-year program that is slated to end in December 2016. Chun says the hope is that they will then engage participants in an as-yet-undetermined second phase. One number they will evaluate at that point is the percentage of families that are staying in their new housing. HUD’s target is 95%, while Hawaii is at about 90%.

Already there have been program successes, including early collaborations among organizations, with shared trainings. Chun says that ideally that will extend to shared services. For example, an organization that emphasizes work with veterans could serve a few veteran clients from an organization that does not.

“That’s what we’re really hoping for—a higher level of collaboration, not just running an advocacy and change agenda at the system level but, also, practically speaking, in terms of the services that they provide,” she says. Other goals are to identify policy and system issues related to families for which providers might advocate, along with the development of cross-sector relationships. That might mean a provider that serves people experiencing homelessness meets with employers or educators to collaborate fully on securing permanent homes for all of Hawaii’s families.

This article was originally published to highlight the January 2015 theme of Housing. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 02/08/2022