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On Oct. 23 when state and city workers were clearing out what had been a 180-person homeless encampment under the Nimitz Highway Viaduct, city Housing Director Marc Alexander told the Honolulu City Council that 60 of those people now had roofs over their heads and most were living with relatives.
“Most of them actually were what we would call diverted,” Alexander said, presenting the information as an indicator of the success of Honolulu’s “compassionate disruption” campaign against homelessness. “They went with families and with friends, which again is very high, an unusually high number.”
Alexander got his numbers from state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige. But when Morishige was asked about them, he said that by the Friday before the Monday sweep, the 60 people Alexander was referring to had left the area. Of those, 12 went to homeless shelters and one checked into a residential drug treatment center, he said.
As for the rest of the viaduct campers, “we’re not sure where they went but we know they’re not there anymore,” Morishige said. “At least from what we observed some … did reconnect with family.”
Bottom line: It’s hard to say how many people were “diverted” from homelessness.
The city did not make Alexander available to explain the difference between the numbers he presented to the council and what Morishige said. But the discrepancy illustrates how difficult it is for government officials and outreach workers to determine what happens to homeless people who are forced to move out of their encampments.
Unless they return to the same place after a sweep — and they often do — it’s almost impossible to account for where they go.
And service providers say even if some homeless people move into shelters or go to stay with relatives after sweeps, that doesn’t represent a solution to Hawaii’s homeless crisis. That, they say, will only come with permanent housing.
The city’s Office of Housing collects its data about sweeps from service providers, who rely on homeless people self-reporting where they plan to go. The state has a similar method.
The data is spotty because homeless people don’t always accurately report their plans.
“We can’t mandate them to tell us,” Morishige said. “It’s the person’s choice at the end of the day.”
Before or during a sweep, homeless people are often reluctant to share information with outreach workers, said Emmanuel Kintu, executive director of the Kalihi-Palama Health Center. The center was one of four organizations that had employees approaching homeless people to notify them of the Nimitz sweep and offer alternatives places to live.
“It’s almost impossible for the person who is being swept to trust the person who is doing the sweeping,” Kintu said.
Institute for Human Services spokesman Kimo Carvahlo agreed. IHS also provided outreach services before the Nimitz sweep.
“Sometimes you don’t know if they’re trying to say something just to get away from you,” Carvahlo said.
To build trust, caseworkers must repeatedly return to an encampment. The goal is to collect contact information so that when someone is ready for services or a unit becomes available, providers are able to locate the people they’ve connected with.
“It’s almost impossible for the person who is being swept to trust the person who is doing the sweeping.” — Emmanuel Kintu, Kalihi-Palama Health Center.
Even if the outreach effort doesn’t end with someone moving into permanent housing or at least a shelter, Morishige said the contact between social workers and homeless people is worthwhile.
Ideally, they’ll fill out a survey called the Vulnerability Index and Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool. The survey assesses a person’s need for housing and is required for a number of homeless services.
“Then at least it’s giving them access to the resources that are available,” Morishige said.
Once homeless people are staying in a homeless shelter, they’re more likely to provide information to outreach workers with information than if they’re living on the streets, said city spokesman Andrew Pereira.
In two large sweeps this year, state and city officials did venture to say that less than 30 percent of the homeless in the encampments moved into homeless shelters.
When state officials closed Kakaako Waterfront Park Park this month, about 40 of the estimated 180 homeless people living along the shoreline moved into shelters, Morishige said.
After two months of outreach ahead of the city’s Pearl Harbor Bike Path sweep in August, 33 of 120 people living along the bike path moved into the Waianae Civic Center run by U.S. Vets and one moved into an emergency shelter, according to a city press release.
Alexander also cited that sweep at the City Council meeting, saying outreach efforts “really delivered on a lot of results.”
Ongoing sweeps by the state Department of Transportation along the H-1 Freeway have had more success moving people into homeless shelters. Since the cleanups began in July, 62 of the 80 people displaced moved into shelter or housing, Morishige said. A social worker always accompanies DOT officials during the sweeps.
Accounting for those who don’t enter shelters isn’t easy.
“They go everywhere,” said Kintu. “From time to time they move into housing … but that’s a few. A majority just move from one place to another.”
“It’s not even a temporary solution. It’s just a solution for that night.” — Poha Sonoda Burgess, Hale Na ‘Au Pono
Moving in with family or friends is better than sleeping on the beach, said Poha Sonoda Burgess, executive director of Hale Na ‘Au Pono, but most of those people end up back on the streets. Hale Na ‘Au Pono offers services to mentally ill adults, including those who are homeless.
“It’s not even a temporary solution,” Burgess said. “It’s just a solution for that night.”
The number of people moving into shelters or in with relatives or friends after a sweep isn’t that relevant, said Kintu because they don’t bring the state any closer to ending its homeless crisis.
What matters, he said, is the number of people moved into permanent housing.
“That is a solid indicator of success,” he said.