WASHINGTON — Forget rail. Forget Sherwoods. Forget the plastic bag ban.
For Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the stickiest problem that he says faces him as the leader of Hawaii’s capital city is homelessness.
“It is the issue in Honolulu,” Caldwell said Thursday during a panel discussion on homelessness at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. “It is the issue that people come up to me and yell about. They’re pissed off.”
Caldwell wasn’t alone. He was joined by several other West Coast mayors to discuss how they’ve dealt with homelessness in their own communities, from Los Angeles to Sacramento and Portland to Las Vegas.
Almost to a person, they said, the challenges are steep and the solutions elusive.
“Can we just for one minute stop comparing cities and say this is a national problem?” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose comments received resounding applause from a roomful of municipal leaders from across the country.
“Let’s stop weaponizing this and saying it’s a partisan issue.”
Hawaii has some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, with much of it concentrated on Oahu, the state’s most populous island.
“I don’t think we solve the homeless problem until we address the growing inequality in our nation.” — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Oahu’s homelessness population increased over the past 10 years, even as state and local officials worked to curb the problem with various campaigns, such as Housing First, which attempts to move people inside before addressing the root causes of their plight, whether it’s drug abuse, mental health or simply lack of employment and income.
Caldwell said the root of the problem is growing economic disparity in the country.
Even though the economy is humming and the unemployment rate low — particularly in Hawaii — there are still thousands of people living on the streets.
“I don’t think we solve the homeless problem until we address the growing inequality in our nation,” Caldwell said. “It’s only getting worse, and we see it nationwide, statewide, citywide.”
Caldwell highlighted a number of programs that he’s deemed successful in getting people the services they need to move indoors or maintain their health.
He discussed Honolulu’s temporary housing facilities at Sand Island that are made from shipping containers, a new affordable “village” near the airport that was the result of a public-private partnership and a hygiene center that provides showers, restrooms and laundry.
Caldwell also highlighted a new Honolulu Police Department program that was implemented last month in his hometown of Waipahu in Central Oahu.
The program works in part by having HPD officers take a zero-tolerance approach to enforcing homelessness-related crimes, such as violations of park closure rules.
Instead of issuing citations or making arrests, however, the officers will drive a homeless individual to a nearby temporary encampment where they can get the help they need, whether it’s a place to sleep or other social services.
Caldwell defended his approach to so-called “compassionate disruption,” a term he coined early on in his administration as he grappled with a growing homeless population.
The city has long conducted sidewalk sweeps on homeless encampments around Oahu as a means to cut down on the visual blight and force people into shelters.
“I feel that the FTA is certainly aware of the problems that we face.” — Honolulu City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson
The effectiveness of the sweeps has been questioned for years, however, with critics saying it simply resulted in people losing their belongings, suffering new forms of trauma and moving to a new location.
“Some people think it’s not compassionate,” Caldwell said. “But enabling people to stay on the streets and in our parks where they die at a very much younger age is not compassionate either.”
The city recently released statistics from the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office showing that 127 homeless people died on Oahu in 2019, an increase over the previous two years.
The Conference of Mayors wasn’t Caldwell’s only engagement while in Washington.
The mayor also scheduled meetings with officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Transit Administration.
He also visited the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial to lay orchids and ti leaves down in memory of Tiffany Enriquez and Kaulike Kalama, two HPD officers who were shot and killed over the weekend near Diamond Head.
Caldwell was joined by other Honolulu officials, including City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson, Councilman Joey Manahan and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Chairman Toby Martyn to mourn the officers.
Caldwell, Anderson, Manahan and Martyn were in Washington to update FTA officials on the status of Honolulu’s $9 billion commuter rail line, which has struggled with construction delays, cost overruns and mismanagement. The project is now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Caldwell said the meeting was part of an update the city provides to FTA each year and was mostly about “information sharing.”
“There’s no real news,” Caldwell said. “It was an update from them and us on how things are going. It was informative and helpful.”
One topic that was discussed, Caldwell said, is the creation of a public-private partnership to build the final leg of the system into downtown Honolulu. The final bid price is one of the largest unknowns for the project and could change the scope of the cost.
Caldwell said the city is anxious to have a final answer on the contract. And he’s not the only one.
Anderson said the FTA likewise expressed some anxiety about the final construction contract. Officials also worried about the continued delays in getting the system up and running.
The original start date for full service was supposed to be Jan. 31, 2020. Now city officials estimate that the earliest the line will be completed is December 2025. The FTA believes it’s more realistic the line will be done September 2026.
“The FTA shared their concerns with us regarding the schedule slippage, and I share those concerns,” Anderson said. “These are concerns that FTA has raised for some time now so it wasn’t new. I feel that the FTA is certainly aware of the problems that we face.”
He said FTA officials did not ask about the ongoing criminal investigation.
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