One of the key challenges for the next four years for whoever is elected mayor will be to figure out how to lessen the number of homeless people on Oahu.
Honolulu has more homeless people per capita than any other city and many of the homeless campers are living on the sidewalks and in the parks of Oahu.
Oahu’s homeless population has increased in each of the past five years.
“The real crisis is that people are falling into homelessness faster than we can move them into housing. Just when we get a group of homeless with services, another wave comes in. It can be overwhelming, “ says Kimo Carvalho, community relations director for the Institute For Human Services.
I talked to Carvalho and other homeless service providers about what they think the next Honolulu mayor, be it incumbent Kirk Caldwell or challenger Charles Djou, could do to build upon current efforts to reduce the numbers of homeless.
IHS helps 1,500 to 1,800 people a year find permanent housing, but Carvalho says “we have a ton more falling into homelessness.”
IHS’s best successes to date have been with homeless people who are eager for help.
“We have gotten help to a lot of low hanging fruit, the homeless people who were craving services but there are hundreds of more challenging cases still out there needing assistance,” says Carvalho
IHS executive director Connie Mitchell says the most challenging cases include people living on the streets with dual diagnoses of substance abuse and mental illness, elderly homeless with dementia, teenagers who have run away from home and people with serious medical conditions.
Mitchell says if she had one wish to pass on to the next city administration, it would be to better coordinate with homeless care providers when it comes to developing affordable housing.
“We have to get around government bureaucracy that doesn’t allow common sense solutions to happen,” says Mitchell.
She says a homeless care provider should be included from the beginning of planning an affordable housing project to make sure the project is built to serve the population for which it is intended, such as elderly homeless or homeless families. And then the service provider should be involved when the residents move into the new project to provide a continuum of care to make the move successful.
Mitchell says she hears of many plans for affordable housing projects “but not enough thought about which population of homeless the developments will be serving and how service will be provided after the project is completed.”
Mitchell also wishes that the large, coordinated city-state-federal efforts to end homelessness had more specific indices of progress and that they clearly outlined who is responsible for accomplishing what.
“We need to make commitments with real people responsible to accomplish specific goals within a real time frame,” says Mitchell.
Scott Fuji, executive director of PHOCUSED, says his wish would be for better budget coordination between the city, state and federal agencies and nonprofits that are all working together to address homelessness.
The mission statement of PHOCUSED is “to advocate for Hawaii’s most vulnerable citizens.”
“We need a more proactive approach and not just everybody reacting to what’s on the front page of the paper today,” says Fuji.
It has been difficult for nonprofits providing services to homeless to get their requests for funding in early enough to be looked at seriously in the different budget cycles of the city, state and federal governments.
“We would like to be involved with the different agencies many months before their budget deadlines to let them know our needs and to proactively plan, instead of the government agency just reacting when it is close to its budget deadline, “says Fuji.
Both Caldwell and Djou say if elected they will continue to enforce sit-lie laws, the ordinances that make it illegal to sit and lie on the sidewalks in business districts.
Fuji says another wish of his would be to get rid of such punitive measures.
“When you look at the costs of the sweeps and the sit-lie enforcement, at the end of the day I would rather see all that money going into serious efforts to find people transitional and permanent housing,” says Fuji.
The Caldwell administration spends about $15,000 a week to enforce sit-lie bans and the stored property ordinance.
Some other providers support the bans against camping out on sidewalks.
Carvalho of IHS says one of his wishes is for the sit-lie bans to continue because they have encouraged otherwise reluctant homeless people to seek help.
“They have brought people to IHS that might never have come without the enforcement,” says Carvalho. “It has given us a chance to explain to them that we can offer them a lot more than just shelter, including caseworkers to help them get things they want like IDs, medical treatment and someone to walk them, step-by-step, through the process of finding housing.”
The Rev. David Gierlach of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church on North King Street in Kalihi, is half-joking when he says his wish for lessening homelessness in the next four years would be to “put up a tent city for homeless right in the middle of Kapiolani Park.”
“If the powers that be aren’t reminded that we have a homeless problem and that it is real, they are not inclined to do anything about it,” says Gierlach. “Until it hurts powerful people in their pocketbooks, we won’t get anything done.”
St. Elizabeth’s has been helping homeless people for the last seven years, including allowing homeless families to seek temporary shelter in a converted shipping container in the church parking lot until they find work or more permanent housing.
Gierlach is dismayed that both mayoral candidates support continuing sit-lie bans.
“Sit-lie got people out of Waikiki and now they are here in Kalihi-Palama. We are seeing homeless people who didn’t exist in this part of town before,” says Gierlach.
Gierlach started what he calls a “Hot Breakfast Club” at the church and now about 100 homeless people are showing up each Saturday for pancakes and scrambled eggs.
Gierlach says his wish for the next four years would be for whoever is mayor to put more emphasis on inclusionary zoning to force developers to include more apartments in their buildings that low-income people can truly afford.
He also wants the city to build a four- to five-story building with small studio apartments for homeless people on land St. Elizabeth’s would provide.
He says the church started to discuss the project with the Caldwell administration, but for now it seems to be on hold.
Merrie-Susan Marchant has a very specific desire she hopes the next mayor will embrace: more public toilets and showers for the homeless to use in urban areas where they congregate.
Marchant is the general manager of the River of Life Mission at Pauahi and Maunakea streets in Chinatown. It feeds about 15,000 people a month, including some of Honolulu’s most chronic homeless people.
The mission also offers its clients four restrooms and two showers, but Marchant says that is not anywhere near enough to meet the need.
“I think public toilets are a huge issue,” she says. “It is just pitiful here some mornings to see people lined up outside three hours before the mission opens, waiting to use the toilet.”
The lack of bathrooms is particularly difficult for elderly homeless and street-dwellers with medical ailments.
Marchant says more public showers are also needed.
“We have homeless clients, who come in here every morning when we open up at 6 to get cleaned up before they go to work. The showers make it possible for them to be dressed professionally enough to keep their jobs,” she says.
Marchant is always looking for practical ways to help. She says another city initiative she would welcome would be laundry centers where the homeless could do their laundry.
“People complain that the homeless are dirty and smell bad but it is very difficult for many of them to keep their clothes clean. They can wash clothes in restroom sinks but there is nowhere for them to dry them,” she says.
She says the laundry centers could serve a dual purpose as community centers for homeless people where outreach workers make contact with them while they waited for their clothing to dry and advise them of the health and housing services that are available.
“Something like this is more sensible than just moving homeless from place to place,” she says.
All the service providers I spoke to say that there is a stronger push now to try to solve the homelessness problem; they just hope it continues.