Last month I drove down to Kakaako Waterfront Park before the big homeless sweep to see if the situation was as bad as critics were saying.
Walking through the parking lot toward the campers’ tents, I nearly tripped over a large cardboard box filled with dozens of long loaves of French bread. The box was soggy from rain the night before. The loaves looked forlorn, left out there in the parking lot, unwanted by the homeless. I was thinking: This is crazy, does anyone actually ask what will help before they drop off excess food and other items?
Oahuʻs key homeless service providers have strong thoughts on what’s beneficial and what hinders the long-term goal of getting homeless out from under their tarps and tents and into their own residences.
Here are some of the don’ts:
• It’s not helpful to drop off food, clothing and household goods at homeless encampments in public places without coordinating first with service providers to find out what is needed.
Institute for Human Services spokesman Kimo Carvalho said when he visited Kakaako Waterfront Park during the two years homelessness there began to peak, he watched people drop off TVs, couches and other furniture, as well as food and clothing.
“At the same time, homeless were refusing our efforts to help them find permanent housing, other people were delivering furniture and TVs and clothing and food to make their camping in the park more comfortable,” said Carvalho. “Those kinds of handouts discourage unsheltered people from wanting to take responsibility for their situations, from wanting to change. They are counterproductive.”
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige says he’s hesitant to discourage anyone from bringing food and other items to homeless encampments, but he says the benefit of such donations can be maximized when a donor finds out first from service providers who work with the people what will truly help.
Morishige remembers once seeing dozens of plate lunch containers filled with food, cakes and other desserts piled up on a Kakaako park picnic table, the food covered with flies and rotting.
“It was such a sad thing,” he said. “The people bringing it were coming from a good place. But there was too much for anyone to consume. The food had to be thrown away. And worse, the spoiled food was contributing to the debris and trash people blame the homeless for creating in the parks.”
Morishige says when making donations to shelters and non-profits, donors should call to find out the ages of the people the organization is helping. He remembers one Christmas when piles of gifts for young children were left at a shelter that primarily housed adults. There were only a few children living there.
“It helps to know the gaps; whatʻs needed,” he said. “For homeless adults, basic toiletries and feminine hygiene products are always appreciated. The small shampoos and soaps you get when you stay in hotels are very useful.”
Another donation that would be welcome is what Morishige calls a “starting out kit” to help homeless people who are getting ready to move into housing — pots and pans, silverware, anything someone who has lived on the streets for years would need to make a house a home.
Carvalho says that household items are an encouraging and much needed gift for homeless people who have had the courage to change by accepting housing.
• Give information, not spare change.
This is one of the tips in a city-sponsored pamphlet entitled, “10 Ways for the community to help people experiencing homelessness.” In it, Marc Alexander, executive director of the City Office of Housing, advises against cash handouts to the homeless and instead recommends trying to steer them to services.
Alexander writes, “When approached by someone asking for money, if you feel comfortable consider smiling and declining politely, suggesting they contact Aloha United Way 2-1-1 for assistance or visit www.auw211.org.
AUW 211 is a database that offers information about different social services available from 4,000 government and non-profit agencies in Hawaii. Someone is available to assist by phone from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday–Friday.
The pamphlet with 10 tips on helping the homeless will be distributed Friday at the 2017 Statewide Homelessness Awareness Conference.
Morishige says giving cash comes down to personal choice: “Sometimes a homeless person really does need money to take the bus or for something urgent. You just have to decide for yourself if you are comfortable giving money.”
• Don’t think of homeless people as hopeless with nowhere to go.
“That is simply not true,” said Carvalho. “There are rental units available across Oahu and federal and state rental subsidies available to help homeless people move into housing. IHS has helped 14,000 people find housing in the last 10 years. Last year, IHS helped 1,500 people move into apartments and houses.
“To say homeless people are hopeless and have few other options other than staying on the streets is demeaning and absolves us from doing anything about their different situations,” he added. “It’s a way of saying it’s okay for them to live in parks.”
Equally unhelpful is perpetuating the myth that people chose to be homeless, says Jennifer Stasch, director of Partners In Care at Aloha United Way, a coalition of Oahu homeless care providers.
Stasch says many people are homeless “because they lack basic support from family and friends. They donʻt think they matter to anyone. Blaming the victim is not helpful in resolving homelessness in your community. It only provides an excuse to ignore those who are suffering and need help.”
• Don’t hold fundraisers without checking first with homeless service agencies to find out what kind of help will be effective.
Carvalho remembers a young man using social media to gear up his friends to help him throw a tie dye T-shirt and pizza party for the homeless at Kakaako Waterfront Park. Everyone had a good time, but such unfocused, indiscriminate compassion did nothing to change the situation at the park, which was becoming more dire each day.
Carvalho says the event and others like it seem more focused on self-promotion than helping people in need.
• Don’t forget that homeless people are part of “us,” not “them.”
Carvalho says it is alienating and stigmatizing to think of the homeless as part of some remote, ostracized group when they face many of the same struggles as others in Hawaii.
Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted problem with no simple solutions. Homeless people cannot continue to be pushed from place to place, but they also cannot be allowed to live in public parks and on the streets simply because “there is no place for them to go.”
Alexander suggests becoming an advocate for affordable housing.
Stasch says landlords should consider working with service providers who have government vouchers from HUD and the Veterans’ Administration to house the homeless.
And for people looking for a smaller but still valuable way to give assistance that matters, Morishige says to consider volunteering even for a few hours each week with an organization that works closely with the homeless.
“It will give you a good sense of what is really needed in the community,” he said.
Many organizations help the homeless in interesting ways, he says. Some are organizations people might not know about such as K-9 Kokua and Poi Dogs and Popoki, which help find foster homes for the pets of displaced homeless people.
“It meant a lot to the homeless to know their animals would be provided for,” Morishige said. “When you think of it, their pets are homeless too.”