The infant’s homeless, mentally ill mother is back on the streets as law enforcement wrestles with whether to charge her.
The recent birth of a baby on a Hilo sidewalk and the subsequent treatment of the mother have raised concerns about the limitations of the Big Island’s social safety network as it contends with a growing homeless population.
The mother, identified by police as Ashley Aileen Maile Lum, has been living on the streets for years and struggles with mental illness, according to several people who know her. Lum, 41, now faces a possible felony charge of child abandonment, prompting criticism from those who serve the homeless community.
“Criminalization is not a solution to poverty or gaps in the health care system. It’s well-established that Hawaii’s medical providers lack the resources they need to provide adequate care to residents, especially those with the most acute needs,” said Kristen Alice, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Hope Services Hawaii.
Alice declined to speak about Lum’s situation directly but said it’s sad to think that a person could be punished for essentially being mentally vulnerable and homeless.
The Jan. 16 birth shocked the community as it happened in late afternoon on a grassy patch of sidewalk on Mamo Street, near the downtown farmer’s market and the popular restaurant Pineapples.
Lum started screaming, but no one paid much attention at first, according to witnesses.
“We’re used to her. She’s always screaming,” said Lyn Negapatan, who helps manage a KTA grocery store across the street. “I thought it was just one of those days.”
But something seemed different with Lum this time and bystanders called 911 as it became clear that she was having a baby.
An ambulance driver whisked the baby girl to Hilo Medical Center where she was examined and declared in good condition. Authorities placed the baby in the custody of Child Welfare Services, according to police.
Lum left the scene but was detained by police a short time later, said Capt. Rio Amon-Wilkins, who responded to the call. Police took her to the Hilo Medical Center, where she was treated and released back on the street two days after the baby’s birth.
On Jan. 18, police issued a press release titled “Police Investigate Homeless Woman Who Gave Birth On Downtown Hilo Sidewalk.” It said Lum had been “taken into custody for abandonment of a child,” then hospitalized. The press release also noted reports that Lum had dragged the baby by the umbilical cord.
But Amon-Wilkins said later that turned about to be wrong. Lum had just taken a step or two away from the baby before medics cut the cord, he said.
Civil Beat later tried to speak with Lum as she weaved her way through downtown, but she only stopped to acknowledge her name and say she was OK before darting off. Advocates and formerly homeless people who know her say that she suffers from mental illness.
Without speaking specifically about Lum’s case, Jessica Stevens, chief nurse at Hilo Medical Center’ behavioral health unit, said patients being discharged receive guidance and written information about free psychiatric services. Those who are homeless and are taking psychiatric medications can go to a licensed crisis residential shelter for up to two weeks. The hospital will arrange for transport.
“If they choose not to take these services, then we can’t force anything on them. It’s their choice, ultimately,” Stevens said.
Lum is one of at least 6,223 homeless people in Hawaii, according to the 2023 Point in Time Count. The state has the fourth-highest rate of homelessness in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Big Island’s homeless population has exploded in recent years. In 2019, 690 people were counted as homeless, a number that grew to 1,003 last year. Services have struggled to keep up and authorities must balance the need to deal with problems in the homeless community while maintaining individual rights.
Amon-Wilkins also said that Lum has been offered services in the past but declined them.
It’s up to the prosecuting attorney’s office to decide what happens next. Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment on the case.
Lum has faced misdemeanor charges before, including petty theft, trespass, traffic violations and other low-level crimes, according to court records. But walking away from a baby could rise to a whole new level.
Big Island Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz said she could face misdemeanor charges, a felony or possibly no charges at all.
“If they decide on felony charges then they would either have the case sent to a grand jury. The grand jury would come back with an indictment, presumably, and that would trigger a warrant,” Moszkowicz said. He would not provide a copy of the police report on the birth because the case is under review.
Despite the seemingly intractable nature of homelessness in a state with among the nation’s highest housing costs and limited mental health services, especially on neighbor islands, local groups and advocates are stepping in to fill the void.
Although Lum has declined help so far, Hope Services and some formerly homeless women who know Lum said they plan to keep trying to reach her.
It starts with building trust.
“It takes time for us to build that trust, build that rapport,” said Carrie Ho’opi’i, Hope Services Hawaii outreach team leader. “We also just have to find them and locate them because it’s constant movement for them. They can’t stay in one place.”
Renee Rivera, a formerly homeless woman from Kauai who runs a nonprofit and teaches at the University of Hawaii Hilo, knows firsthand how important it is to offer help instead of just turning people out onto the street.
She now offers healing circles for women grappling with homeless or facing other issues including domestic violence, mental illness, addiction or recovery from sexual assault or child abuse.
The turning point in Rivera’s journey came after she was released from prison in Las Vegas and was immediately transferred into a psychiatric hospital for six months of intensive treatment.
“It was like the best thing in my life. I got therapy and I got to address my PTSD issues,” Rivera said during an interview at the student cafeteria at the UH Hilo campus.
If she had been released from prison out onto the street, Rivera said chances are she would returned to the world of drugs and homelessness.
By sharing her story and being vulnerable with homeless women, Rivera said she builds trust.
The deployment of doctors and other medical providers to treat homeless people on the streets is also showing promise in helping those who are mentally ill, according to housing advocates and providers.
Dr. Chad Koyanagi, a psychiatrist with the Hawaii Department of Health, has been doing it for more than a decade, mostly in Honolulu. Last year, he started making twice monthly visits to the Big Island to do the same.
“In the last decade or so, there have been many wonderful game-changing antipsychotic medications, which can be given monthly or every three months,” he said.
Koyanagi partners with Hope Services to provide street medicine and is expanding the scope of the services to include long-acting psychiatric injectable medications, which could help homeless individuals with serious mental illness.
From his years of working with homeless individuals, Koyanagi understands how tricky it can be to treat such patients, particularly women. Many are distrustful of outsiders, especially if they are sexual assault survivors.
Some of the most effective case workers are people who have experienced homelessness themselves, he said.
Aurora Leanillo, a formerly homeless woman who is a student at Hawaii Community College in Hilo, said that may be the best option for Lum.
“The community is going to come together for her,” Leanillo said.
Rivera thinks so, too.
“That’s the only thing we can do. I mean, there’s nobody else who’s going to do it, right?” Rivera said.“
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