One day this summer, a Honolulu police officer approached a man who had been homeless for eight years.

Would he accept help from a social worker?

The homeless man agreed.

For years the man had sheltered in the stark concrete of Honolulu’s Iwilei district, a visible reminder of the city’s homelessness crisis. He was well-known by police, as are many of the city’s chronic street people. But he wasn’t a threat to public safety.

David Shaku, LEAD Case Manager at the Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center.
LEAD case manager David Shaku helps program participants reach the goals they’re ready to tackle. For some, the desire to find permanent shelter comes only after they’ve made progress in other areas, such as alcohol detox or reunification with their children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This made him eligible for Honolulu’s newest program to provide intensive social services to non-violent people who have frequent brushes with police and are grappling with issues including mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness. 

Designed to treat the underlying issues that perpetuate poverty, the city’s partly launched Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program was established to provide intensive case management to low-level criminal offenders and people who regularly interact with police but don’t commit crimes.

All told, 30 people have entered into the city’s new LEAD initiative, starting the rollout of a program announced by Gov. David Ige in April.

But none of them have been diverted from jail — one of the program’s central promises.

That’s because law enforcement and LEAD organizers still haven’t struck an agreement over what crimes should be eligible for diversion. Instead, the program is now open only to people who interact regularly with police but have not broken the law.

“My understanding is they are very close to working out an agreement,” said state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige.

The Honolulu Police Department did not answer a request for comment.

Providing low-level offenders with services instead of jail time is the central point of LEAD, which is funded by the Legislature with a recurring annual allocation of $200,000.

Honolulu police arrested thousands of people in 2017 who could have potentially benefitted from social services. All told, 60 percent of everyone arrested by HPD last year suffered from serious mental illness or severe substance abuse.

Often jail time does people in this population more harm than good. So the Legislature moved to fund the LEAD program, in part, to help move people off the streets and keep them from continually cycling through the criminal justice system.

But right now the only way to get into the program is if a police officer sees someone who could benefit from social services — but has not committed a crime — and opts to bring an on-call social worker to the scene. 

This arm of the program exists so as to prevent people from committing a crime in order to obtain LEAD services. For now, that issue is moot while low-level criminal offenders remain ineligible.

Heather Lusk, who is driving LEAD’s rollout as the executive director of Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, said she expects the list of LEAD-eligible offenses to ultimately include violating the city’s sit-lie ban and committing low-level drug crimes. Prostitution was an early consideration, but it has been nixed by Honolulu police.

Despite the program’s dragging and piecemeal kickoff, Lusk said LEAD has the potential to be a game-changer for people plagued by drug addiction, homelessness or mental illness — people who often don’t respond to the punishment of jail time.

“I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a program in a long time,” Lusk said. “It’s just getting a slow start.”

Piggybacking Off Seattle’s Success

LEAD 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.

The collaboration between service providers and law enforcement has since gained national recognition for its effectiveness in not only reducing arrests, drug addiction and homelessness, but also improving relationships between police and communities.

A study of Seattle’s LEAD program from 2009 to 2014 showed that people who went through it were 58 percent less likely to reoffend than those in the regular criminal justice system.

Chinatown has long struggled with the issue of homelessness. Tim Huynh/Civil Beat

In Honolulu, LEAD organizers know that what works in Seattle won’t necessarily work on a Pacific island. A stringent evaluation process will monitor LEAD’s challenges and successes, thereby helping organizers make changes to boost its effectiveness.

The program is limited to Chinatown and Iwilei, a hotspot for homelessness. It has a staff that includes a certified substance abuse counselor, two case managers and two outreach workers.

Maui and the Big Island have also received $200,000 each to launch LEAD programs of their own.

Although LEAD’s central arrest diversion arm is still on hold, the Honolulu program is already enjoying some early successes.

Within six weeks of joining LEAD, the homeless man in Iwilei, described in the beginning of this story, moved into a shelter. It’s an accommodation that was always available to him during his eight years of homelessness — but it wasn’t necessarily appealing.

After building a positive relationship with his LEAD case manager, he changed his mind.

Moving off the street is only the first in what organizers hope will be a long string of stabilizing life changes for the man.

Although officials anticipate most LEAD participants will be homeless, at least at first, the program links people to resources beyond basic shelter.

“Maybe you’re not ready to go to a shelter because there are rules there, but you do want to get food benefits or go see a doctor or get your photo ID and your documents in order,” Lusk said. “Maybe you want to find out what’s going on with your kids. Maybe you want to go into detox. If we can help you with that, then you might be more willing to work with us on the bigger goals, like getting into housing.”

More Than A Housing Program

In the three years since Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency over the surge of panhandlers, sidewalk sleepers and tent communities across the state, Honolulu has deployed teams of social workers to move homeless people into shelters. But never before has there been this level of coordination between law enforcement and social workers to treat the wide range of issues that perpetuate homelessness.

“There are outreach workers out there working on homelessness, but they’re only really addressing housing issues,” Lusk said. “We’ve got substance abuse workers, but they’re only working on substance abuse issues. It goes on and on. But once someone gets into LEAD, we actually treat the whole person — mental illness, addiction, reunification with kids, anything that will help get them on track.”

Heather Lusk press conference homeless count.
Heather Lusk, executive director of Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, said LEAD is so promising because it has the support of a huge number of social services organizations, as well as law enforcement. Here she is seen speaking at a press conference about the statewide Point-in-Time Count, a census of Hawaii’s homeless population. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

One of the first LEAD participants is a man who wanted help to obtain a state ID. His caseworker eventually built up enough trust to compel him to move into a shelter — something he refused to consider when he first joined LEAD.

“One of the key features of LEAD is that we’re connecting people to the resources they already had,” said LEAD Case Manager David Shaku. “We’re building on their motivation to seek out these services that have been available to them all along.”

But there are challenges. Since June, eight of the 30 inaugural LEAD participants are no longer active in the program because their case manager lost track of them.

It’s not uncommon for a social worker to lose track of a client who doesn’t have a phone or consistent shelter. 

It’s also possible that any one of these LEAD participants could have been arrested, Lusk said.

Finding a way to address LEAD participants who break the law while enrolled in the program is a future conversation Lusk is eager to have with HPD.

“There have been times where someone has been making really positive change, and then they’ve hit law enforcement and then suddenly they’re going to lose their home, they’re going to lose their job, they’re going to lose all of that progress,” Lusk said. “Ideally, HPD will be part of that conversation so they can decide case-by-case whether it makes sense to give them one more opportunity.”

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