As Hawaii struggles to stem homelessness and prison overcrowding, Gov. David Ige wants to take a new approach: connecting people arrested for low-level drug crimes with social services rather than putting them behind bars.

It’s a practice that seems to be working elsewhere.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion started in Seattle in 2011. In that city, police officers who arrest people for low-level drug offenses or sex work give them the option of receiving social services through LEAD rather than getting booked into jail. Officers can also recommend people join the program without arresting them first.

In the five years since it’s been implemented, the collaboration between service providers and law enforcement has gained national recognition for its effectiveness in not only reducing arrests, drug addiction and homelessness, but also improving relationships between police and communities.

Kakaako Gateway Park with tents and bicycles. 15 april 2016.
Homelessness in Hawaii has been increasing every year, and data shows most homeless people suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Former President Barack Obama encouraged the idea following the Ferguson, Missouri, protests after a police-related killing, and Seattle’s police chief even spoke to the United Nations about the benefits.

Ige wants the Legislature to spend $200,000 on a pilot program. His effort comes more than a year after he declared a state of emergency for homelessness. More recently, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against the state for poor conditions in overcrowded jails and prisons.

Honolulu police arrested thousands of people in 2015 who could potentially benefit from the program. HPD statistics show that of the 16,000 people arrested on Oahu that year, 61 percent were mentally ill. Forty-three percent of arrests involved homeless people.

Deborah Kissinger, a former police officer who is now a child psychiatrist, is among the advocates who want to get Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion started in Hawaii. She says putting mentally ill or homeless people in jail isn’t a solution.

“What kind of community do we want to be? Do we want to have a large state hospital and a large local jail or do we want to do the kinds of things that could keep people out of either place?” Kissinger asked.

A National Model

Caseworkers in Seattle’s LEAD program provide highly individualized services. They spend time cultivating relationships with landlords who can house those who are homeless. They reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration as needed. Once, a caseworker bought tires for someone who needed to get to work and couldn’t afford them.

An independent analysis by the University of Washington determined that people who participated in LEAD in Seattle were less likely to be arrested after its implementation.

Although the program wasn’t aimed at reducing homelessness, 82 percent of participants were homeless before joining LEAD, and 40 percent got housed, the study found. More than half — 55 percent — received drug treatment through the program. More than half also were able to obtain legal identification documents.

Gov. David Ige, speaking at a press conference in Kakaako, believes Hawaii has made progress on homelessness and that LEAD could help. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

“LEAD works much better than the criminal justice system in reducing people’s criminal behavior,” said Kris Nyrop, who helped start the program in Seattle and recently visited Honolulu to advise local service providers. “Even providing a Cadillac level of services to them is cheaper than the criminal justice system.”

The program started with $400,000 in Seattle and served about 65 people, Nyrop said. Now its budget is $2.1 million and it serves more than 400 currently, he said.

The program has also been adopted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York. California recently approved $15 million for three pilot projects, and North Carolina is considering expanding its LEAD program after the state was one of the first jurisdictions to follow Seattle’s lead.

Getting Buy-In

Last week, Nyrop and more than a dozen service providers and state and county officials crowded into a conference room in the office of the CHOW Project in Kakaako, a nonprofit that runs a syringe exchange program.

They call themselves the LEAD Hawaii Hui, a group of 18 organizations and agencies that wants to implement a pilot project in the islands.

They face challenges.

They need to convince legislators that it’s a program worth funding, and neighborhood boards that it has benefits. Perhaps the biggest obstacle may be the getting the law enforcement community on board, including the county prosecutor and the Honolulu Police Department.

Sarah Yoro, a spokeswoman for the police department, said the agency has met with LEAD supporters but hasn’t seen plans for a pilot project.

Chuck Parker, spokesman for Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, said Kaneshiro wasn’t available for comment.

Nationally, some in law enforcement are wary of the program and worry it will give cops more work to do or be subject to abuse, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Seattle police Sgt. Ryan Long told the newspaper he met a LEAD participant who said he joined the program to evade jail and wants to keep using drugs. But Long is still supportive of it: “We can’t arrest our way out of problems,” he said.

Nyrop argues that, far from burdening police officers, the program shifts the responsibility for dealing with mentally ill or homeless people to the social service community.

His own perspective on law enforcement has evolved as the program has given him a new appreciation for police officers and an understanding of the importance of working with them.

“The cops really know this population,” he told service providers last week.

Convincing The Legislature

LEAD is just one of many homelessness-related initiatives that Ige is hoping the Legislature will fund this year. He wants $20 million for homeless services like rental assistance, along with millions for public housing repairs and rental housing construction.

But since Ige presented his proposed budget, the Council on Revenues has dropped its estimate of 2017 tax revenue by $155 million. The governor also didn’t include any raises for government employees in his budget request, prompting criticism from lawmakers and unions.

The two lawmakers who will have the biggest say over whether or not the program gets funded are Sen. Jill Tokuda and Rep. Sylvia Luke, who lead the finance committees. Both were unavailable for comment for this story.

But a hearing Thursday morning at the State Capitol gave a preview of the type of questions that Scott Morishige, Ige’s homelessness coordinator, will have to field as legislators pore over the budget request.

Scott Morishige, state homelessness coordinator, wants lawmakers to support a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pilot project. The project started in Seattle and has been implemented in other cities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Isaac Choy wanted to know why Morishige wants $2 million for the storage of homeless people’s property.

“In my opinion it’s trash and garbage,” Choy said. “Is there a way we can not spend $2 million on storing stuff and spend it on, I don’t know, buying plate lunches for these guys?”

Morishige replied that there are constitutional concerns about having a place for people’s property. The ACLU sued the City and County of Honolulu for throwing away homeless people’s belongings.

Rep. James Tokioka asked what Morishige is doing to prevent other jurisdictions from sending homeless people to Hawaii.

Morishige noted this concern hasn’t been verified by the state. Even the Institute for Human Services, a major homelessness provider, has never been able to confirm it.

Rep. Romy Cachola questioned why the state doesn’t put mentally ill homeless people in institutions.

Morishige explained that the cost of housing a homeless person is cheaper than paying for hospitalization.

After the hearing, Morishige said that in addition to connecting people with social services, LEAD would avoid saddling people with a criminal history that could prevent them from later finding housing. Even the Hawaii Public Housing Authority rejects people who have been convicted of certain drug crimes.

LEAD, Morishige believes, “creates another pathway.”

About the Author