Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled a more aggressive strategy Wednesday for tackling the homeless problem, which includes moving as many as 440 homeless people into permanent housing in the next two years.
The housing initiative, supported by $47.2 million in funds recently approved by the Honolulu City Council, is being paired with two bills introduced by the mayor last week that would crack down on sleeping and camping out on Waikiki sidewalks and defecating and urinating on public property.
Caldwell announced his revamped homeless strategy at a press conference at the Waikiki Grass Shack Bistro in Kuhio Beach Park, which has become one of the battlegrounds in the city’s efforts against homelessness.
The event, which took place against a backdrop of tourists and locals frolicking in the turquoise water of Waikiki, also attracted the attention of some of the homeless people milling around the area.
One man approached the mayor asking about belongings that were confiscated by the police. Another homeless man gazed at posters detailing the mayor’s homeless strategies.
Joined by about half a dozen police officials, homeless service providers, key leaders of his administration, the state homeless czar and a homeless veteran, Caldwell highlighted the need to take back public spaces increasingly occupied by the homeless — a bane of Waikiki’s $15 billion tourist industry.
He also urged compassion.
“We are stepping up what we call compassionate disruption,” he said. “I think it is incredibly cruel to just drive by homeless folks and ignore them as if they don’t exist — those who have mental challenges and addictions — and say let them fend for themselves.”
He said helping the most chronic homeless is what “civilized people do and it is what Americans do.”
However, some of the tactics that the Caldwell administration has taken to prod homeless people into shelters have been controversial.
This includes ramped up enforcement of laws that have allowed police to seize unattended belongings.
Homeless people have complained that their possessions have been confiscated by police and they don’t have the money to retrieve them. Meanwhile, they say they are being shuffled from place to place.
Caldwell, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and parks officials stressed Wednesday that recent enforcement measures, as well as sweeps of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, were not unfairly singling out the homeless.
“Homeless people are not being targeted,” said Caldwell. “But we are looking into where crime exists. And to the extent there is criminal activity in the homeless population, it will be pursued.”
Kealoha echoed that sentiment before rattling off recent statistics on the number of actions that the police have recently taken to enforce various nuisance laws.
“When we hear the word homeless, it doesn’t mean that we are targeting the homeless and enforcing the laws just against the homeless,” said Keahloa.
Since the beginning of the year, the police department has issued several thousand citations and made arrests throughout the island for offenses such as drinking in public, sleeping in parks at night and illegally selling goods.
Kealoha didn’t break down the numbers to make clear how many infractions involved homeless people. But in Kapiolani Park alone, police officials have issued nearly 800 tickets and made 10 arrests for violating park closure and camping laws since January, he said.
In Waikiki, police have issued 36 citations and made 17 arrests for peddling. They have also issued more than 200 citations for liquor and smoking violations combined. There have also been 17 arrests for liquor violations.
The city has also issued 456 sidewalk nuisance violations and 233 stored property law violations since the beginning of last year, said Ross Sasamura, Honolulu’s Facility Maintenance Director.
He, too, stressed that the enforcement wasn’t targeting the homeless.
His department “enforces city ordinances uniformly and without any type of prejudice,” Sasamura said.
Still, city officials acknowledge that part of the reason for the increased enforcement is to encourage the homeless to get off the streets and seek out available services. And new legislation proposed by Caldwell, which must pass the City Council, is meant to abet these efforts.
Bill 43 would make public urination and defecation in the Waikiki Special District punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail. The district includes the area makai of Ala Wai Boulevard and west of Kapahulu Avenue.
Bill 42 would prohibit people from sitting or lying down on sidewalks and carries the same maximum penalty.
“If we let it be convenient to sleep, for example, on these sidewalks in Waikiki or parks around the island, it just means that those activities continue and we don’t get people into permanent housing to be treated and to be made better,” said Caldwell.
If the proposed laws prove successful, he said he would consider extending them to other areas of Oahu.
Kealoha acknowledged that the efforts may result in shuffling people to different parts of the island.
But the Caldwell administration is betting on its ability to acquire housing that will ultimately get a large portion of the homeless off the streets. The “Housing First” initiative doesn’t require the homeless to enter treatment programs first — that restriction is often a barrier to getting people into shelters.
On Wednesday, the administration unveiled a breakdown of how it intends to spend its new housing funds.
The city expects to use some $3 million in general funds to begin immediately placing about 110 homeless people into apartments through rental assistance programs. The funding will also be used to provide support services such as treatment for substance abuse and health care.
The city anticipates it will take one to two years to use the rest of the $44.2 million. This will include $4 million to acquire or renovate 20 studio units in Waikiki and $8.2 million for 60 apartments likely spaced out in different areas of Oahu. This money, part of the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, will be used to house the chronically homeless.
The city also hopes to acquire or renovate 200-250 apartments to house homeless people using $32 million in general obligation bonds inserted into the 2015 budget at the last minute by Council Chair Ernie Martin.
The Caldwell administration said earlier this month that the general obligation funding will be harder to use because it requires the city to own the buildings or apartments, as opposed to partnering with private or nonprofit developers.
“So we will unfortunately be back into the housing business if this goes through,” Ember Shinn, the city’s managing director said Wednesday, echoing prior sentiments.
However, the Caldwell administration’s own homeless action plan, released last year, indicated that general obligation bonds would eventually need to be tapped because of the significant shortage in available housing on Oahu.
City officials said that they are focused on a scattered approach to the housing, but will also entertain options for buying buildings, which they said would ideally be for mixed-income occupancy.
“We don’t want to create a ghetto,” said Caldwell. “We’d like to see chronic homeless folks there, but also maybe some middle-income folks there, too . . . because we believe that recovery is about living in a healthy neighborhood.”