Less than six months after problems surfaced at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kakaako, residents and some state officials are worried things may be getting worse.

In February, resident David Cannell and others told the media about problems with hot water, bedbugs, rats and leaky roofs at the shelter, a 200-bed converted warehouse at the end of a Honolulu Harbor pier.

Many of the same complaints remain. But this time Cannell charges shelter administrators with “human rights abuses and shameful neglect of homeless people.”

In a July 13 letter to Next Step management, reproduced in full at the end of this article, Cannell writes:

I am a wheelchair-bound, handicapped man with diabetic complications, including recurrent staph infections from the bedbug bites I got from the shelter. It is oppressive for you to kick a vulnerable poor person like me out of the shelter for minor violations of absurd, petty, inconsistent rules. You have never suffered modest circumstances in your whole life, and thus it is hard for you to comprehend how devastating it is to banish me to the streets, where I have no place to even charge my electric wheelchair. However meager the protection of the shelter is, it is still protection from the streets. What you have done is counter to all values of fairness, decency and justice. You treat people with disabilities as if you are superior to them, but you exhibit more mental illness than the sickest person in the shelter, because you are actually attacking defenseless people. 

Cannell is not alone in his complaints, and he has support.

At a media availability at Kakaako Waterfront Park on Tuesday, Cannell and other residents or former residents were joined by state Rep. John Mizuno, who has lead efforts on the Hawaii Legislature to address affordable housing and homelessness.

Mizuno says he’s heard allegations of “abuse of power and possible civil rights violations.” He and Rep. Tom Brower, whose Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kapiolani Park district is home to many homeless, want to see improved communication between shelter residents and staff.

Meanwhile, Carroll Cox, a local radio host and watchdog who was also at the media availability, suggests that the shelter be audited.

Darlene Hein of the Waikiki Health Center, which contracts with the state to run Next Step, defended the shelter — it is 97 percent at capacity, demonstrating that people use the service — and Jason Espero, its coordinator.

“There are people in this world who are callous and don’t care, but Jason is not one of them,” she said. “He’s smart, he’s a good guy and he wants to do the right thing. I feel bad for him because he’s the focus of complaints and he’s just getting pummeled.

Cannell, however, blames Espero for “blatant professional ineptitude,” even “tyranny.” He’s calling for the state to terminate its contract with Waikiki Health Center, and for lawmakers to consider levying a “progressive tax” on the wealthy to help pay for affordable housing.

‘Not An Easy Job’

That’s not likely to happen.

State and county officials have struggled for the past six years or so to alleviate the growing crisis of homelessness, but it seems for every step in a positive direction — like opening up Next Step — there are other steps that seem cosmetic fixes — like kicking squatters off of sidewalks and out of parks.

Invariably, homeless people simply move their tents and other belongings from one part of town to another.

Just two blocks from the media availability with Cannell and Mizuno, a dozen or so tents and their occupants were camped out on the sidewalk along Ilalo Street, which fronts the John A. Burns School of Medicine. A man wearing only soiled shorts urinated in the shade of a utility box located Diamond Head of the school’s Cooke Street parking lot.

Cannell says that many of those homeless are former shelter residents who were either kicked out or could not abide by shelter rules.

One of those is Robin Kelley. She said she left the shelter after six months because, after pointing out to shelter staff things that she felt “were not appropriate for members — like safety issues, child abuse,” she says she became a target of retaliation.

For the past four months, Kelley has been sleeping in one of those Kakaako sidewalk tents. She wishes Next Step would not kick out residents for what she said are mostly minor infractions.

“What’s the point of that?” she said. “It seems to be counterproductive.”

Mizuno is worried about Next Step residents who expressed a range of concerns — like Kelley’s, or a woman who said that shelter management wanted to take away her prescription medication, or Cannell, who says he was kicked out of the shelter for three days because he missed a meeting.

“I think there is room to more flexible and understanding,” said Mizuno. He noted that an audit of the shelter is a possibility, as is an investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

Mostly, however, Mizuno hopes that disputes can be resolved between shelter residents and staff.

The lawmaker heard directly from Hein, who told him that they shelter has been doing “a pretty good job for the most part.”

He said, “I felt she was very open with me when she said, ‘John, this is an emergency shelter. It’s not going to be the greatest place to live. We’re doing our best to get people off the streets and helping them to get transitional housing, permanent housing as well as employment placement.'”

Mizuno accepts what Hein says, but adds, “Unfortunately, there are still a large number of residents that have concerns. But Darlene said she is open to discussion and I am confident that we will come up with a solution. Ultimately, we really need to support Next Step. You don’t want to stop the shelter; you just want to improve on it. And that’s where we can get more transparency and better dialogue.”

Said Rep. Brower, “I’ve been to the shelter several times, and I think they do a really good job. But there are always going to be grievances. And from what I’m hearing, everyone just sort of has to stick together and we have to have some semblance of rules. Most of the complaints I heard about today could be avoided if smarter heads prevailed.”

Brower added, “I have a lot of confidence in the management of the shelter, but it’s not an easy job and there are a lot of growing pains.”

Darlene Hein says discussions with residents is ongoing, and it has included a half-dozen talks between her and Cannell over the past few weeks.

“I think that residents want things to be better, but they don’t always see the bigger picture,” she said. “They also doesn’t always listen to the answers to their questions. But they want to be an advocates for people who are homeless, and that’s not a bad thing.”

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