Denby Fawcett: We Have Become Numb To The Plight Of Homeless People - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeHawaii’s homeless problem is rarely discussed in local news these days. It is as though the public has reached detente with the chronic sleepers on the sidewalks and the illegal campers in the city’s parks.

The tents lining sidewalks that once seemed aberrant have become the norm. Sometimes is seems like the public has thrown up its hands in surrender saying: “It is hopeless, too complicated to address.”

“There is a numbness,” says Kathleen Rhoads Merriam, a supervisor in the state’s Adult Mental Health Division. She has worked in mental health for 38 years, a lot of her time spent advocating for Hawaii’s most fragile and mentally ill residents, many of whom happen to be homeless.

Walking through Chinatown, she says she has watched as pedestrians gingerly sidestep homeless people on the pavement, moving past people who are clearly suffering, as though they are not there.

Coming out of almost three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Merriam says even those providing mental health services seem worn out, emotionally fatigued.

“It is as though people want to stay in their own boxes. Not to look beyond themselves. It is a phase we need to work though. We have to pull together to help,” she says.

Chronic homelessness — the situation of individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems often in poor physical health — is a dilemma without an easy solution.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources in a news release October 14 admitted defeat, pointing to its doomed efforts to keep homeless campers from commandeering urban parks it manages, specifically the Sand Island Recreation Area and Diamond Head Monument.

“My heart goes out to these people in terms of the social impacts, the issues they’ve had in their lives. We’ve created an entitled population who prefer to be camping along the shoreline or in the bushes, rather than getting offered services and housing. It’s become a lifestyle,” says Curt Cottrell, administrator of the DLNR’s Division of State Parks.

The parks division has budgeted $200,000 this year to support the state Department of Transportation’s efforts to clear out encampments in the parks but Cottrell says that is nowhere near enough.

DLNR, in the news release that quoted Cottrell, explained the agency’s job is to manage the state parks for the use of the public, not for the use of homeless, but says it’s stymied: “Squatters could be cited for trespass, and despite periodic clean-ups there is no effective way to move homeless people off public lands permanently when they consistently refuse housing.

“In fact, many of the people who were inhabiting 30 different campsites on Sand Island came from Kakaako, after parks there were transferred to the City and County of Honolulu.”

State parks administrator Cottrell compares the homeless situation with the difficulty of trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube: “To get all one color lined up is a monumental effort and then to have it stay put before you start turning the cube, it turns into chaos again.”

That’s a dramatic way of putting it. I would say it’s more accurate to call homeless encampments in certain parts of Oahu bastions of routine, not places of chaos. Some of the areas where entrenched homeless people go about their business in a day-by-day manner include the edges of Waimanalo Beach Park, the sidewalks across from the Honolulu Convention Center, as well as Sand Island and Diamond Head. Homeless people in those places refuse to move no matter how many times the city and state try to persuade them.

Richard Paleka Diamond Head homeless camp homelessness Denby Fawcett column
Richard Paleka has lived in Kuilei Cliffs Beach Park on Diamond Head for nearly 40 years. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2022

Richard Paleka is a homeless camper I know who has lived in Kuilei Cliffs Beach Park on Diamond Head for nearly 40 years.

During that time he has been cited for trespassing by the police, served countless warrants for ignoring his citations and had his encampments swept out by the city dozens of times. Each time his camp on Diamond Head is broken up and hauled off as trash, social workers appear to offer him services and housing that he refuses.

I asked Paleka on Saturday, as I have many times, if he doesn’t ever get tired of it and feel like accepting housing. He told me, as he always does: “Too late already. I wouldn’t know how to live in a house. I would have to learn all over again.”

Paleka grew up in Waianae, where he was once one of the children featured in a newspaper article about young girls and boys enjoying etiquette lessons at Waianae Elementary School. Now 57, he laughs that he feels like he is 90. He is not homeless. Diamond Head is his home.

In an interview about his achievements during his eight years in office, Gov. David Ige said his one real regret was that he was unable to do more to help the chronic homeless.

“We are improving mental health services and addiction treatment, and those kinds of programs, because we know that many of them do suffer mental illness or have addiction challenges,” he said. “And until you can treat those, it’s really hard for them to recognize that they need help. And so we are making progress.”

Ige points to advances his administration has made in finding shelter for homeless families.

Ige’s homelessness coordinator, Scott Morishige, said in an email that the number of families living unsheltered has dropped from a high of 805 in 2016 to 376 in 2022 — a 53% reduction.

The figures are based on Hawaii’s point-in-time counts, the annual tally mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – a far from perfect count, admits Morishige, but one that nonetheless shows trends over time.

The administration of Gov.-elect Josh Green wrote to me in an email that Green will make it a “top priority” to get housing for the homeless, including the chronic campers, in what he calls his “Housing and Healthcare” model.

“Housing someone drastically increases their health and well-being, cutting their health care costs to the state by 43%-73%, and improving their quality of life and life expectancy at the same time,” a spokesman for the administration said.

Green ran TV commercials during his campaign boasting about his success in getting homeless people settled in housing. He promised if elected to reduce homelessness in Hawaii by 50% with his “10-point plan to end homelessness” as well as to significantly reduce chronic homelessness by 2030.

It’s easy to be cynical after watching previous state and city leaders trot out their own comprehensive plans to end homelessness while watching homeless camps spread out and multiply in ever new locations.

Merriam says a lack of coordination even within the health department itself has thwarted efforts in the past.

But some of Hawaii’s most akamai homelessness experts think Green’s background as a physician has given him a deeper understanding of the mental demons that destabilize the chronically homeless.

“His heart is in the right place. He gets it. He is aware of the mental health component of treating the homeless,” says Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, the largest and oldest homeless care agency.

Merriam of the state’s Adult Mental Health Division is also enthusiastic about Green’s promise to get government and private agencies synchronized.

In the email, Green’s spokesman said the administration intends “to break through the silos of bureaucracy” — meaning to help state departments such as health, human services and the prisons addressing homelessness to work in sync and better collaborate with private non-profit agencies “who we count on to deliver support and help to those in crisis.”

Merriam says a lack of coordination even within the health department itself has thwarted efforts in the past.

She says: “We have to pull together to help.” Everyone. Even us.

A good first step would be when we walk past a homeless person lying on the ground to think about the complicated layers of trouble that got them there and what we can do to give them the tools to help themselves.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I think the general public is just burnt out and frustrated with the expansion of homeless people that surround the community daily. There isn't a park they haven't taken over and are permanent fixtures in certain locations, basically staking their claim to public lands we all pay for. While the mayor wants to fine property owners $10K a day for vacation rentals, homeless pay nothing for being illegal campers and squatters. Where's the equality in that? If the city/state can't deal with those that refuse housing then they need to just designate a park like Sand Island where they will allow it "temporarily" as a tent city. Provide services there and then weed through those they can help and transition into housing. The problem is most will need to become productive in some form, they can't expect to just be without some type of barter or renumeration. If not in taxes, then in services. Pick up the litter and trash they create and show respect for the a'ina, not trash it. I've see first hand the filth they leave up on Diamond Head, which Hawaiians should deem as sacred as Mauna Kea.

wailani1961 · 10 months ago

"We’ve created an entitled population who prefer to be camping along the shoreline or in the bushes, rather than getting offered services and housing."My first question about this statement is, where is all this housing going to come from? Who is going to pay for it? They talk about offering housing, but that's simply a short-term solution as far as a couple months . Getting into long-term housing, that's a whole nother question. My second point, refers to the "point in time counts" of the homelessness. There is no way that that count is anywhere near accurate . How did they figure those numbers? I can understand going to an encampment and counting the people there and asking others who lives there with them, but there are a lot of individuals out in the bush who have never been counted. Rest assured of that.

Scotty_Poppins · 10 months ago

Ms. Fawcett and CB might want to extend the story about the chronic homeless like Mr. Paleka. Extend it like one is understanding a customer and perhaps a community can even be more innovative in designing "right fit" options. There is no one size fits all kind of solution but certainly the "housing first and health" model should be one of the priorities. "Housing first" is not a new idea and one can see that multi-site housing first has been a recommendation in past city affordable housing and homelessness plan for HUD. The good idea was gunned down by brutal realities, including NIMBYism. Perhaps NIMBYism should be overcome by requiring each and every region or district to have housing first sites, like there are libraries and public parks.

Ca · 10 months ago

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