Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell hopes to accomplish something no one else before him has been able to do.

He wants to solve the city’s homeless problem.

During his inaugural State of the City address Wednesday, Caldwell outlined his priorities for the coming year.

Many of these were the same ones he presented when he released his $2 billion budget in March. Those five main topics included restoring bus service, paving city streets, updating the sewer system, spending more money on parks and building rail better.

But Caldwell also described what he called his “next priority” — homelessness.

“Oahu’s homeless population today has grown to about 4,500 people,” Caldwell said. “While many are already in shelters, more are visible in Waikiki and through urban Honolulu in places like Chinatown. For the near term we need to find a temporary solution to get people off of the streets, out of the parks and to places where they will receive safe shelter and social services.”

Homelessness has long been an issue in Honolulu, whether it involves stories of one-way tickets to Hawaii or the recent spotlight that has been shone on (de)Occupy Honolulu and the tents erected around Thomas Square.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has made the issue a priority, appointing the state’s first homelessness czar. Abercrombie’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle was also a strong advocate for getting Hawaii’s homeless residents off the streets.

But on Oahu — where the problem is worst — the topic has been mired in controversy, particularly as it relates to how past city administrations have handled Honolulu’s homeless population.

Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, for instance, is notorious for a nighttime closure of Ala Moana Beach Park, which forced more than 200 homeless people to uproot and find new places to live and sleep. Hannemann said they could sleep next to the police station.

Peter Carlisle, who lost his bid for reelection to Caldwell, is also responsible for the displacement of hundreds of homeless people on the Waianae coast. He was behind the effort to clear out a large-scale encampment at Keaau Beach Park that over the years had turned into a sort of shanty town.

So what exactly does Caldwell hope do differently?

’Everybody’s Being Mobilized’

“With each new administration we’re always holding our breath,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Health Services. “I never know coming in who will be driving the initiative for the city regarding homelessness.”

Mitchell is a leading advocate for the homeless. Her non-profit agency provides food, shelter and services to hundreds of homeless residents around the island. It’s a multi-faceted issue that, she said, needs to be specifically tailored to individuals in need.

She said she’s encouraged by Caldwell’s statements during his State of the City address, particularly those related to working with other agencies, such as the state and federal government. She also likes that the administration has been reaching to various nonprofit groups, such as IHS, to help get a handle on a possible solution.

“Everybody’s being mobilized, which I’m just thrilled to death about,” Mitchell said. “We’re all talking to each other and trying to see what all the solutions are while recognizing that there’s not just one silver bullet that’s going to solve this problem.”

It might seem like Caldwell’s fight against homelessness is newfound. The topic wasn’t discussed much in the lead up to the 2012 election, at least not compared to the noise generated by the city’s $5.26 billion rail project and former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s plan to kill it.

But if you scour the campaign literature, Caldwell did mention homelessness as a key cog in his administration. In fact, it appears right next to rail in his “Roadmap For Our Future” brochure. Homelessness is on Page 11, rail on Page 12.

Caldwell reiterated his campaign’s homelessness plan Wednesday, saying he wants to bolster the city’s “Housing First” initiative that puts the focus on providing shelter before anything else. The follow up to that would be providing services to those individuals, such as mental health treatment and job skills.

“Can you imagine how hard it must be to get better, to get some stability in your life, if you don’t have the basic need of housing first,” Caldwell said. “By focusing on housing first, we can get the homeless off our streets, parks, bus stops and doorways and return those areas to the public.”

The mayor also said he supports a bill currently working its way through the City Council that would help officials remove individuals camped out along Thomas Square as part of the (de)Occupy Honolulu movement. The city has struggled to get the protesters to remove their tents, resulting in a bitter back-and-forth between police, city workers and those who say they’re peacefully demonstrating.

New People On The Job

Beyond Bill 7 and expanding the “Housing First” plan, Caldwell was light on details Wednesday.

He introduced Jun Yang as his new director of housing, calling him the city’s “agent of change” who will be working closely with Department of Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland and others to combat homelessness.

Yang is a somewhat unconventional addition to the administration. He used to be with Faith Action Community Equity, a nonprofit that has sometimes been critical of how the city handles homelessness issues and affordable housing. Now Yang is working for Caldwell trying to pull together various entities to work on homelessness issues and increase the amount of affordable and workforce housing available in Honolulu.

“Previous administrations looked at homelessness and they wanted to sweep it to the side,” Yang said. “Mayor Caldwell’s administration, we’re tackling it head on.”

This doesn’t mean past administrations didn’t try, Yang said. Hannemann unsuccessfully tried to launch a “Housing First” project on River Street in Chinatown, that included 100 rental units. It ultimately failed due to community opposition. Carlisle, too, spearheaded an initiative that ultimately stalled out. His project, called “Pathways” aimed to provide health and social services to the chronically homeless.

Now the city is considering resurrecting these programs as well as creating others to develop a comprehensive plan to battle homelessness, Yang said. Everything is on the table, he added, including a proposal brought up by Councilmember Stanley Chang to develop safe zones, where Oahu’s homeless can eat, sleep and get access to social services.

Yang said the city hopes to have a detailed plan to present to the City Council by the end of the month. Until then, he said discussions about possible solutions will be ongoing.

The city doesn’t specifically set aside money for homelessness in its budget, but it does have more than $40 million for grants and nearly $5 million in an affordable housing fund. Chang has said he has identified up to $77 million in the city’s budget that can be used for affordable housing and homelessness.

““Homelessness is not going to be solved in one year, and it’s not going to be solved in six months,” Yang said. “The city is setting up to create the solutions to end homelessness. That’s the goal. We want to house our residents and we want to make sure they have a healthy, safe place to live.”

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