More than three dozen of Honolulu’s chronic street people received intensive social services during the first year of the city’s fledgling Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program.

The 37 people who voluntarily accepted case management, medical aid, transportation assistance and help finding permanent housing through LEAD between July 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019 were able to reduce the number of days per month that they spent unsheltered from 21 to 13.

They halved their encounters on the street with police.

Emergency room visits by these clients also decreased.

Chinatown is a hotspot for homelessness.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

A report on the program’s first year concludes that participants sizably improved their quality of life after receiving LEAD services. It advocates for the program’s expansion and the establishment of a jail diversion arm that would decrease the burden on the criminal justice system.

The report notes, however, that the program is not a magic bullet. Participants who received services still had a much lower quality of life than the average Honolulu resident.

One of the program’s central promises — a jail diversion component — has yet to materialize.

In major cities that have adopted LEAD, including Seattle, the jail diversion component is the crux of the project. The idea is to divert from jail non-violent homeless people who get in trouble with the cops for low-level offenses.

Every year Honolulu police officers make thousands of arrests of people plagued by homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. Often jail time does this population more harm than good. Recidivism rates are high as jailing the offenders does nothing to improve the conditions that lead them to reoffend.

But in Honolulu, program organizers still haven’t struck an agreement with the cops over what crimes should be eligible for diversion.

Instead, the program’s services are available only to homeless people who have not broken the law and are referred to the program, usually by a social worker. The incentive of avoiding jail time by agreeing to cooperate with social service providers does not exist.

Although LEAD’s central arrest diversion arm is still on hold, the Honolulu program is enjoying some early successes. All told, 47 people were referred to the program during the first year and only 10 of them chose not to participate.

Most of the 37 people who agreed to enroll in LEAD were female. Nearly half identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Most were single and had earned a high school diploma or GED.

All told, 78% of participants had reported using methamphetamine and 68% reported alcohol use.

All of them dwelled on the streets of Chinatown and Iwilei, a hotspot for homelessness to which the program is currently limited.

Read more about the program’s rollout here.

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