Linda Hillier sat on the curb, a can of Sprite at her side.
It was early Thursday, and the city’s maintenance crew had just arrived at the corner of Ilalo and Ohe streets, ready to clear out the last and densest section of the Kakaako homeless encampment.
During the past few months, Hillier had lived in her tent she set up along Ilalo. But her belongings was already packed up and moved across the street — just far enough to be safe from the sweep.
Hillier was still trying to figure out her next move. “I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ll just wait for them to finish up,” she said, nodding toward the city’s dump truck.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell and other officials say the city’s homeless shelters have enough vacancies to accommodate all of those being displaced in the final sweeps of the encampment.
“We would not do this enforcement if we didn’t know there was sufficient shelter space,” Caldwell told Hawaii News Now on Wednesday.
But, to critics of the sweeps, Hillier was one more example of the city’s failure to figure out how to deal with significant numbers of the displaced — those who either will not or cannot go to shelters.
Honolulu police officers stand by as a man hauls belongings along Ilalo Street on Thursday.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Colin Kippen, the former state coordinator on homelessness, says simply having empty shelter beds to match the number of the encampment’s remaining residents won’t ensure that everyone gets housed.
“The primary attribute of people who are chronically homeless is that they cannot successfully navigate transitional or emergency shelter,” Kippen said, pointing out that some people have severe mental illness or debilitating addictions.
“So, when we say things like, ‘Oh, we have sufficient shelter beds,’ that assumes that every individual is fit for the bed that’s available, and that’s absolutely not the case.”
“There are very real barriers for people to go to some of the shelters. Some people have disabilities that prevent them from taking advantage of shelter space. Other people have jobs or children in school that make it hard, if not impossible, to go to some shelters that are out in Waianae or Waipahu, for example,” Gluck said. “So the math is not as simple as the officials are making it out to be.”
Disparities in Numbers
Another debate was mathematical: Just how many people remained in the encampment before Thursday’s sweep?
Scott Morishige, the governor’s new coordinator on homelessness, puts the number at about 100.
But Beatriz Cantelmo, the Honolulu-based deputy ambassador of the United Nations World Human Facility, says she conducted her own survey Wednesday and counted 278 people still remaining in the area.
“I’m very shocked with what the city’s been saying in terms of how many people they claim to have here, versus what the reality is,” Cantelmo said. “This leads to the disconnect between what the city says they’re providing in terms of services and what people are receiving. I’m concerned about that.”
Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, surveys the scene before Thursday’s sweep.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Morishige says outreach workers have been visiting the encampment regularly and had helped 104 people, including 15 families, move into the shelters or permanent housing before Thursday’s sweep.
That would mean the city had managed to house a little more than a third of the 293 people who were living in the encampment when a survey was conducted during the week of Aug. 3.
Morishige says the outreach effort can take time, especially when dealing with those who have long resisted the shelters.
“We have been working with the providers — on the outreach side and the shelter side — to identify some of the barriers and what we can do to minimize those barriers,” said Morishige, pointing out that transportation services are now available for some remote shelters.
“When outreach workers are going into the area, they’re not only offering shelter spaces, but also are trying to really assess the needs of individuals and families and offer an appropriate resource,” Morishige said.
Scott Fuji, interim executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED, says the city was making a “good-faith effort” to help remove the barriers to entering the shelters.
“I don’t think the city’s being disingenuous when it says there are beds available that folks can access. The shelters that are now in operation are really trying to re-evaluate what they can do to lower the barriers, so people are able to access them when they’re ready to move in,” Fuji said. “But those barriers do exist, without a doubt.”
A tent fire engulfs debris and asphalt along Olomehani Street on Thursday morning.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
“I think there is a lot of good outreach being done, but they have long been under-resourced,” Lee said. “I think we have historically set our standards too low and let the problem grow for much too long. Kakaako did not pop up overnight.”
For the past month, the city has been clearing the encampment in phases and making sure people don’t return to areas that have been swept.
On Thursday, the maintenance crew cleared Ilalo, Ahui and Olomehani streets — an area that’s been home to some of the encampment’s longtime residents.
The sweep went smoothly, save for a small, apparently accidental fire mid-morning on Olomahani Street.
A steel-framed tent caught fire on a sidewalk near where a man was rushing to pack up his belongings. To prevent the fire from spreading to nearby tents, the man reportedly pushed his tent into the middle of the street, where firefighters quickly extinguished the flames.
The maintenance crew will return to the area today, with plans to finish the job by sweeping Ohe Street and the remainder of Ilalo Street.
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