The annual homeless head count released recently by the City and County of Honolulu was a damning indictment of the half-baked efforts of city and state leaders to address what has become one of Oahu’s most pressing problems.
The “point-in-time” count showed that 4,903 homeless people were living on the streets or in the shelters of Oahu when the census was conducted in late January — an increase of nearly 200 individuals over the previous year.
Despite very public initiatives to address this issue, over the past six years, Oahu’s homeless population has steadily increased, year over year, by a cumulative total of 35 percent. Nearly 1,300 more people are homeless in Honolulu now than in 2009, and most experts feel even this historically high count doesn’t reflect the total population.
Despite calling homelessness a priority, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has promoted efforts that simply shuffle the problem from one area of the city to another.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
State of Hawaii officials inexplicably greeted this news with optimism, pushing out a news release with a headline proclaiming, “Results Show State is Making Progress.” The actual release text then drew attention to the share of homeless who lack shelter — 40 percent — being the highest since data were first collected six years ago, and the proportion of sheltered homeless — 60 percent — being the lowest yet recorded.
Perhaps most troubling, the number of homeless veterans rose by 21 percent over last year to a total of 467. This despite Honolulu’s participation in a national, federally sponsored campaign to eliminate veteran homelessness in the 25 cities where it is most pronounced.
Honolulu stands alone among those cities in having a problem that has actually grown significantly worse since the program began, while other cities have eliminated veteran homelessness entirely.
As many critics predicted, including Civil Beat, the city’s sit-lie bans in Chinatown, Waikiki and other Oahu business districts have only served to make the lives of the homeless more miserable and move them to other, less visible places.
One only has to go to the area adjacent to Kakaako Waterfront Park and the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine to see the ban’s most appalling outcome: A heartbreaking shantytown of makeshift dwellings that is likely this island’s fastest growing neighborhood. On a recent unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, residents sat quietly under the humid shade of tarps and tents, the cries of infants making the only sounds in the sprawling, ramshackle community.
Tents line the sidewalks at Olomehani Street near Waterfront Park in Kakaako.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
It’s been eight months since the Honolulu City Council passed the ban. At the time, council members urged Mayor Kirk Caldwell to find a temporary place for those sure to be displaced by sit-lie, but the city seems no closer to identifying such a place than it is to delivering the promised necessary services to get folks off the street — part of a cruel bait-and-switch that insisted sit-lie’s passage come first.
With business owners understandably pleased that the challenges of homelessness have been reduced in the city’s key commerce districts — a worthy and important goal — city and state leaders now seem to feel little pressure to meaningfully address the issue.
To the contrary, the City Council is poised to move forward Wednesday with Bill 6, a measure that would extend sit-lie to the Aala, Kapalama Canal, McCully, and Punchbowl areas. A total of 15 business districts would now fall under the ban, and Bill 6 would apply sit-lie to sidewalks on both sides of the streets in each area.
Despite city attorneys’ refusal to sign off on a bill they call “illegal,” the Council seems determined to use sit-lie as a human flyswatter: Rather than making good on promises to provide dwelling space and services, the Council will simply lazily slap at the bothersome homeless with more police hassling, misdemeanors, fines and jail time.
Homeless residents’ tents line the muddy bank of Kapalama Canal near the Dillingham Street intersection.
“I strongly still feel that this does not fully address the situation of homelessness. It continues to move people around, and since we’ve passed legislation earlier last year, I personally see more homeless folks coming into the suburban areas, in particular Aiea, Pearl City, Waipahu and through other parts of the island,” said Elefante in voting against the measure.
“These people have a face. And the human cost by us enacting legislation like this allows someone to continue to go down the ladder and not encourage them to go up and achieve success and get them back on their feet again, back in society, back to working a job, but more importantly gives them hope and an opportunity.
“And I feel that we as policy makers are only continuing to criminalize these folks, which only gives them a bad impression of government. Government should be there to serve the people and work with them.”
We appeal to Council Chair Ernie Martin and his colleagues to stop this measure in its tracks. The point-in-time count shines an unflattering spotlight on the inefficacy of their approach thus far, and without taking serious steps to deal with our burgeoning homelessness challenge, the numbers will only get worse.
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