Hawaii Progress: Views From an Outsider

Recently, Hawaii released data in their progress towards ending homelessness. Hawaii (the Big Island), Maui and Kauai all posted decreases. Oahu more or less stayed the same, but perhaps because of improved counting methods in their Point in Time Count. As an outsider, I want to focus a bit on what they were able to achieve on the Big Island. Having visited Hilo and Kona several times over the past couple years, I want to share some observations of what I think the difference makers have been to see a greater than 30% reduction there. And if you are unfamiliar with the Hawaii landscape by way of geography and policies, this reduction is truly extraordinary.


The Hawaii Community Foundation has made it possible for several leaders from across all of the islands to enhance their leadership, making a multi-year investment in capacity building in that regard. On the Big Island, people from Hope Services went a step beyond this, also availing themselves to leadership training opportunities specifically within the homelessness sector (they came to the Leadership Academy and Master Class offered by OrgCode). The leadership of Hope, along with willing County and community partners, made the brave decision to take risks and do things differently in services rather than waiting for direction or permission from others. It has changed the culture of service delivery in the community, and has provided very clear messaging on the intention of homeless services to end homelessness through housing.

Professional Development

Do what you have always done and get as you have always gotten. To change direction, there has been the promotion and infusion of a learning culture. Throughout the entire organization there has been an unrelenting commitment to learn and implement new practices to yield the outcomes that would be necessary to end homelessness. 

Working the Problem

The transition of programs and services to focus on ending homelessness has not been without its challenges. Rather than reverting to old practices or giving up, there has been a desire to figure things out. The people at Hope Services especially seem to embrace that imperfect action trumps perfect planning. They are doers. And when issues have emerged they reach out to other people and resources to gain perspective and figure out a pathway forward, staying true to what they are trying to accomplish.

Lower Barrier Shelter

Gone are the days of many pages of shelter rules. Here are the days of less than ten expectations for a shelter stay. Gone are the days of barriers to shelter that would screen many people out. Here are the days where shelter has a strong housing focus and deliberately tries to engage people with higher needs. Gone are the days of loads of in-house programming. Here are the days when programming stays focused on getting people out of homelessness as fast as possible. Gone are the days of being focused on drug testing. Here are the days of focus on behaviour not exclusion for use.

More Targeted Outreach

Another shift has been from a "contact" based approach to street outreach to a housing-focused approach to street outreach. Across the island the focus is on assisting those with higher acuity in resolving their homelessness. The measure of their success is not how many people that see or connect with, and into measuring success by how much homelessness is resolved.

Reworking the Organization

Within Hope Services - the beacon of homeless and housing supports in my eye on the Big Island - the commitment to end homelessness meant they also had to change the way the organization worked. Policies and procedures changed. Rules for services changed to expectations. Job descriptions changed. Orientation and on-boarding for staff changed. The outward relationship of the organization changed.

Unapologetic and Unrelenting Housing Focus

The purpose of providing a homeless service is to end homelessness. This is lived in practice every single day. There has been a strong movement away from short-term charity to long-term results in ending homelessness through housing. Hope Services in particular is proof positive that you can meet immediate, basic needs while never losing sight of the importance of housing.


I am very proud of my friends and colleagues in Hawaii on turning the corner with homelessness, especially on the Big Island. I will see many of them this week and look forward to giving them the high five they deserve for their homelessness. I am also excited to see the early gains in Maui and Kauai translate into deeper gains over time. And I remain hopeful that Oahu can continue to steer the large homelessness and housing infrastructure there towards the success that is being realized on the neighbour islands.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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