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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues