Just an hour or so before the start of a city-sponsored forum on homelessness, critics of Mufi Hannemann sent out e-mails to media blasting the Honolulu mayor for political grandstanding.

“Four years after kicking homeless families out of Ala Moana Beach Park leaving them with nowhere to go during one of the worst rainy seasons in recent memory, Mayor Mufi Hannemann is now holding a forum on homelessness,” charged Barry Fukunaga, chief of staff for Gov. Linda Lingle. “It’s about time the Mayor stepped up — even though it’s evident that he is only doing so because he is running for Governor.”

Jonah Kaauwai, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said Hannemann has “passed the buck” on homelessness from city to state.

“Mayor Hannemann’s record on homelessness is abysmal, and his efforts to rewrite history will be unsuccessful,” said Kaauwai, noting that the Lingle-Aiona administration “has doubled the number of homeless initiatives.”

Hannemann and his city managing director, Kirk Caldwell quickly fired back.

“Extremely unfortunate,” said Caldwell, himself a candidate to replace his boss when he steps down from office.

“No matter how hard you try, some people are never satisfied,” said the mayor.

One thing both sides could agree on: Homelessness is now a campaign issue in 2010.

Addressing an audience at the Mission Memorial Auditorium in downtown Honolulu, Hannemann got personal.

“I have close friends and family members who are homeless,” said the mayor. “That does not make me happy at all. So, when I hear ‘How can the mayor go into parks?’ let me assure you that every decision is done in a sensitive, compassionate manner.”

But the perception remains that the city’s solution to homelessness is to kick them out of parks, while the state’s solution is to find a place for them to sleep at night.

Republican supporters of Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, who could face Hannemann in the general election, see a chink in the mayor’s armor. One of Lingle’s few unquestioned accomplishments in office has been a concerted effort to deal with homelessness.

Fukunaga detailed some of those accomplishments in his statement, including opening the Next Step Shelter in Kakaako six days after the 2006 evacuation of 200 homeless people from Ala Moana. With the help of community groups, six other emergency shelters and transitional facilities opened on Oahu over the past four years.

By contrast, Fukunaga said, Hannemann ordered evacuation of beaches and parks along the Leeward Coast and, more recently, in the Waikiki area.

“Mayor Hannemann shirked his responsibility and insisted homelessness is a state problem because the city does not have the resources or expertise in this area,” said Fukunaga. “Yet at the same time, his counterparts on the neighbor islands saw things differently. They showed leadership and took on the homeless challenge working in partnership with the state and community.”

Hannemann defended his actions, saying the evacuations had been “well-intended” but “misunderstood.”

“And it is not a panacea,” said Hannemann, adding there were “positive and negative results.”

On the positive side, according to the mayor: parks and beaches are cleaner and more open to the public, and some homeless people who had refused outreach services before have become more willing to accept them.

“We made it tougher to pitch a tent and have a shopping cart in parks,” said Hannemann

On the negative side, he acknowledged, was some homeless finding “creative ways” to set up camp on sidewalks, or to move into the hillsides and brush.

Hannemann also modified his earlier view on government’s role in addressing homelessness.

“Yes, in the beginning I said it was better for the state to do that, but now we are delving into that with programs like Housing First, which we would like to see,” he said.

Problem is, the city’s efforts to build its first Housing First project — the initiative is based on a national model — on city land in Chinatown has met resistance from residents and business. Hannemann said the city would continue working on the matter but admitted that the project, called the River Street Residences, may have to find a different home.

And, just after saying homelessness was a problem that required broad support — “No one entity can do it alone,” he said — Hannemann said some of the problem was beyond the city’s resources. The state Legislature and Department of Education, for example, are better suited to deal with chronic homelessness.

The mayor also lamented that Honolulu has not had a government office of housing for years, something that the City Council is looking into. The fundamental problem with homelessness, most experts agree, is lack of affordable housing.

Hannemann closed his remarks by saying, “We should lead the nation in coming up with solutions.” He did not say whether “we” referred to Honolulu or Hawaii.

Hannemann stayed for about an hour at the two-and-a-half hour homeless forum. Caldwell spent only about 15 minutes. Compare that with Aiona, who spent most of the morning at a summit on homeless children just last week.

About a dozen candidates for office listened to panel discussions and mingled with the audience at the city’s homeless forum. The cynic would say they were just trolling for votes. But maybe politicians are finally accepting that homeless is indeed, as Mufi Hannemann now says, everyone’s problem.

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