Republican candidate Duke Aiona placed homelessness at center stage in Hawaii’s gubernatorial campaign Monday by proposing two novel ideas.

The first is a “homeless court” that would allow homeless people facing criminal charges the opportunity to petition for entry into the program in order to get them off the streets and closer to services that can help them.

Family members who have “exhausted their influence” in getting help for homeless relatives suffering from mental illness or addiction could also petition the court to help their loved ones.

The second idea involves better outreach to homeless veterans through the National Guard.

As governor and commander in chief of our National Guard, I will direct our Guard to leave no service member behindwith peer-to-peer outreach to homeless veterans,” Aiona declared at a press conference at Kakaako Gateway Makai Park.

LeadCrop Duke Aiona Homeless Kakaako

Duke Aiona talks to an immigrant family from Chuuk before his press conference at Kakaako Gateway Makai Park, June 16, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Aiona also said he would fly any homeless people back to their home state if they had been given one-way airline tickets to Hawaii by cities trying to export their homeless residents.

Claiming there was “actual and anecdotal” evidence that this has happened, Aiona said that as governor he would instruct his attorney general to collect reimbursements for the cost of returning people to the states they came from.

Aiona predicted the homeless court and veterans’ outreach program would have “an immediate impact on over two-thirds of the states homeless population, veterans, those with mental illness and chronic substance abusers.”

There was little doubt that homelessness would come up frequently in Hawaii’s 2014 elections. It has been a serious issue for about a decade here and dominated recent headlines, including in Civil Beat.

“We are in crisis mode with a homeless population which has increased 30 percent since 2010.” —Duke Aiona

Aiona is using the issue to not only argue that he would be an innovative leader — he and his campaign used the words “bold,” “unique” and “pioneering” to describe his plans — but also to illustrate how the situation has only gotten worse over the past four years.

When it comes to homelessness, Gov. Neil Abercrombie now has a record — and not a good one, from Aiona’s perspective.

Homelessness is a public safety issue for everyone, including the homeless,” Aiona said. “We are in crisis mode with a homeless population which has increased 30 percent since 2010.”

That was the year Aiona, the former Republican lieutenant governor, lost the race for governor to Abercrombie, who said reducing homelessness would be a top priority during his first term. Once in office he created a Cabinet-level position to coordinate the state’s approach.

Duke Aiona Homeless Kakaako

Aiona spoke to reporters not far from homeless camps in Kakaako Makai.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The state’s first “homeless czar,” Marc Alexander, left after only a year. Colin Kippen currently holds the job.

Abercrombie has not said much about homelessness during his re-election campaign, which has focused primarily on his guiding the state through tough fiscal times. The list of accomplishments on his campaign website, for example, only says his administration has provided “increased services for veterans” and “expedited development of affordable housing.”

The list of accomplishments for 2011-2013 on the governor’s official website, meanwhile, offers a few more details: restoring funding to priority safety net programs “to assist Hawaii’s most needy” and convening the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness “to ensure integration and coordination of services.”

As a member of the Legislature, state Sen. David Ige, who is challenging Abercrombie in the Democratic primary, also has a record on homelessness. While he has not always taken the lead on introducing legislation to address homelessness, he has supported bills from colleagues.

Duke Aiona Homeless Kakaako Security

An aide to Duke Aiona stands nearby as the candidate speaks to reporters.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

For example, at a forum last month, Ige pointed to a bill from state Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland that would restore to 50 percent the portion of conveyance tax collections that go to the rental housing trust fund beginning July 1.  The legislation awaits Abercrombie’s signature.

Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party candidate for governor, has a record on homeless issues, too. He is remembered by many as the Honolulu mayor who evicted homeless camps from Ala Moana Park — an action that was welcomed by some and denounced by others.

Hannemann does not mention the homeless in his record as mayor on his campaign website. But the record does say his administration “made maintenance of public parks and facilities a priority” and “cleaned Ala Moana and Leeward Coast parks.” On a side note, the website also highlights that the FBI called Honolulu under Hannemann “one of the safest big cities in the nation.”

When Hannemann resigned in July 2010 to run for governor in the last election, local Republicans criticized his record on homeless issues as “abysmal.” Hannemann and his managing director, Kirk Caldwell, defended their record. As the current mayor, Caldwell is now a high-profile figure in the homelessness debate himself.

Homelessness a ‘Community Problem’

Aiona said Monday that homelessness “is not a city problem, it is not a state problem, it is a community problem. We need to come together in the spirit of aloha to address homelessness together.

After the press conference, Aiona told Civil Beat, “I am not here to put blame on anybody. But it’s increasing.”

As governor, he said he would work with existing programs, service providers and nonprofits, as well as city and county officials.

Aiona, too, has a record when it comes to homelessness.

Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr asked the candidate whether large cuts to social services for the mentally ill under the Lingle-Aiona administration might have contributed to the increase in the homeless population.

Aiona disagreed with Kerr’s characterization, saying that Lingle elevated the issue of homelessness by setting up shelters in Kakaako and Kalaeloa and working to establish transitional housing.

But Aiona said the 30 percent increase in homelessness since 2010 “speaks for itself.”

Aiona’s proposals come as Mayor Caldwell is pushing legislation that would punish homeless people for urinating and defecating in the open and sleeping on sidewalks. He calls his approach “compassionate disruption,” and it is in response to complaints from businesses and the tourism industry.

Aiona is sympathetic to those concerns. In fact, he wants to help police enforce the law, something he thinks the homeless court will facilitate.

‘Tough Yet Compassionate Justice’

The court, in a mobile trailer, could be taken straight to the streets and parks where homeless people congregate, he said. Homeless people charged with, say, sleeping on the sidewalk, would have the opportunity to make their case.

For those who have been arrested or have outstanding charges, Hawaii’s homeless court provides an alternate gateway to services and a new beginning with fair due process within the judicial system,said Aiona.

A former family court judge, Aiona called his approach “tough yet compassionate justice,” because it aims to provide homeless people with a way out of their situation and access to services.

“Hawaii’s homeless court provides an alternate gateway to services and a new beginning with fair due process within the judicial system.” — Duke Aiona

Aiona said the veterans outreach would not incur any additional costs for the Guard. He did not put a price tag on the homeless court, but said it would surely cost Hawaii’s economy less than the price tag from the increase in homelessness.

Aiona also placed worsening homelessness in the islands into an historic context. He said he thought back to when he was growing up, a time when families would take care of their “brothers and sisters.”

He mentioned “hanai,” the Hawaiian word for the informal adopting of people, even adults, into families.

“That was the basis of Hawaii, at least when I was growing up,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s why you didn’t see homeless much when I was growing up, but now I see a proliferation of it. And I am very concerned about that.”

Aiona said his plan was not a “magic bullet” to end homelessness.

“But it shows some boldness and would have an immediate impact,” he said.

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