Hawaii News — Homeless In Hawaii; County Offers Small Solutions For A Big Problem

By Alan D. McNarie


Most of you who read this live in a home.  Look around it now. You’re probably surrounded by hundreds of possessions: cookware, dishes, silverware, appliances, canned goods, furniture, clothing, tools, books, CDs, DVDs, photos, artwork, mementos, hobby equipment, documents. If you have children, there are probably toys and games, maybe diapers and formula. What if you had to reduce your possessions to fit into a single shopping cart? What would you take? What would you sacrifice? Your birth certificate? Your grandmother’s teapot? Your family photo albums? The drawing your daughter created in the fifth grade? How would you live without your stove and dishes, without your documents, without your Internet connection?

Welcome to the world of the homeless. Usually, it’s more than a home that they’ve lost.

At an April 15 meeting of the County Council’s Committee on Public Works and Parks and Recreation, a bill was debated that many saw as a threat to what little the homeless had left. Bill 193, “Relating to Unlawful Storage of Personal Property on Public Property,” would allow the County after a 24-hour notice to confiscate to confiscate personal property found in, say, a public park.  The county could then  charge storage costs or, if the property is not claimed and fees paid, to sell or destroy the property.

“This bill wasn’t intended to focus specifically on the homeless,” Kona Councilor Drew Kanuha maintained, expressing “disappointment” with a newspaper article that had portrayed it in that light.

But when county officials were asked the justification for such a law, they cited the case of a homeless man who left assorted personal belongings under a tarp next to the driveway of a county base yard.

“There was no ordinance available on how to deal with it,” explained Senior Corporation Counsel Joseph Kamelamela, who said the items had to be removed because they constituted “a safety issue.”

Fifteen people testified against Kanuha’s bill, none in favor—and all of the testimony focused on the homeless. Testifiers included social workers, veterans, kanaka Maoli, at least one homeless person and various outraged residents.

“When you went home, you had a nice dinner to spend your time with your family, you slept in a comfortable beds, you got up and had your breakfasts, drove your car to sit and pass judgment on us,” said one testifier, who identified himself as “Abraham the Messiah.”

David Carlson of American Legion Kona Post worried that the bill would “seriously affect our disabled veterans, who are among the most vulnerable of all that we have. They have the highest rate of suicide, and most of them are affected by PTSD, and they become self-medicating with drugs and alcohol…. We’ve got to be careful not to be too rough on these people because they just can’t handle it.”  He concluded that “This kind of thing, of taking the vulnerable veterans and taking away their prized possessions, as minimal as it is, is not helpful.”

Ike Pono Payne, former Housing Coordinator for the Institute for Human Resources on O`ahu, also noted the damage that the proposed law could do to already-fragile psyches. Many of the homeless, he said, already perceived that “People don’t see them as being of worth, and by taking their possessions and trying to make them pay for them—it’s just deplorable.”

Aside from the moral and psychological objections about taking homeless people’s stuff, testifiers raised several practical problems with the bill. Brandy Manino of Hope Services, for instance, noted that homeless people could have problems proving that items were theirs. Another testifier pointed out that given the island’s bus schedule, which doesn’t have same day service from Kona to Hilo and back again, 24-hour notice might not be enough. 

Payne noted the health risks to county workers who had to handle “other people’s property that they have no right to be dealing with in the first place.”

Among the bill’s more vociferous critics was Occupy activist and County Council District 2 candidate Kerri Petersen Marks, who noted that her first job on the island had been as a social worker with the homeless.

“This odyssey started, what, about ten months ago, when Mr. Kanuha put on the resolution to make the mayor do something about homeless people because businessmen on Ali’I Drive were complaining. I chastized him…for being heartless, for having no compassion for the most vulnerable people on our island.

He promised to take this back and take it under advisement and come up with something good.  If this is what you have come with, stealing Tulsi Gabbard’s Oahu City Council Bill 53, I urge you to go back to the drawing board and try again.”

She noted that the O`ahu bill,  [actually Bill 54, passed when Gabbard sat on the Honolulu City Council] had cost the City and County of Honolulu “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” to support.

“Kill this bill,” she urged. “Do not amend it, don’t fix it, don’t talk about it very long. I want to hear somebody make a motion to kill this bill immediately.”

She didn’t get her wish. But Kanuha did move to “postpone this to the call of the chair”—in other words, postpone it with an indefinite timeline.

“I just want to kind of take it back to the drawing board and work on it,” he later told the Chronicle. He noted that “a lot of great ideas” had come up at the hearing, some of which could possibly be incorporated into the bill, including an exemption from storage fees for the homeless and lengthening the time from the first notice until the removal of property.”

He also said he wanted to pursue the idea of supplying storage space where the homeless could keep their things.

But even if the bill doesn’t move forward, the hearing still served a useful function, according to Hamakua councilor Valerie Pointdexter.

“I think that right now the bill will probably not go through but the dialogue to open up forces all of us to be involved,” she observed.

That dialogue had already started about a year ago, when Mayor Billy Kenoi formed the Chronic Homeless Intervention and Rehabilitation Project: a pair of task forces—one windward, one leeward—consisting of representatives from county agencies, medical facilities, mental health facilities and social work nonprofits that dealt with the homeless. According to Clarysse Nunokawa, the mayor’s representative on the project, it has no budget—the participants are volunteering their time—but “If the group comes up with ideas that need funding, then we would pursue different strategies for that funding.” The group is pursuing a two-pronged approach: “intervention”—“ This is where we work on strengthening our laws and legal response,” Nunokawa explains—and “rehabilitation”: “what additional services we need, how we can work on the problem, how can we fill the gaps in services that are served to the homeless population.” The project has also formed a “multidisciplinary team” headed by Dale Ross of the Prosecutor’s Office, which has identified thirty chronic homeless persons and is trying to get them into housing. “ Nunokawa says that group has identified about 30 specific chronic homeless people on the island, and is working  “with our county folks and our social service folks, trying to get them into housing. To date, we’ve got about 5 people into housing.”

“We have offenders who frequently come to court. They generally are cited or arrested for minor offenses such as drinking in public, trespass, shoplifting, harassment, disorderly conduct. Then because they fail to appear, bench warrants are issued by the court and they have to be arrested. There’s a cycle that happens over and over again. We get frustrated because the underlying issues don’t get dealt with in the criminal justice system, because many of these chronic offenders have complex issues, like mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, and medical problems.” Her group is working with social service providers to “be a little bit more coordinated so that offers of aid are timed for periods when [chronic offenders] are more likely to accept services”: periods such as the points when the homeless are in court or are just getting out of incarceration.

The mayor’s project focuses only on the “chronic homeless,” whom Nunokawa defines as those “who have experienced homelessness for a year or longer.  They may have mental illness, substance abuse, addiction, physical illness or all of the above and they’re frequent users of our emergency service and public safety systems.” The chronic homeless are often the most public face of the problem: the people who are most like to be seen sleeping in beach parks or in the doorways of Hilo or Kona shops. They’re also the ones most likely to use the emergency room and hospital services without insurance—which can make them very expensive. A 2009 study of Los Angeles homeless estimated that a 46-year-old unsheltered adult with substance abuse and mental health issues costed, on average about $5,038 per month. Hope Services, the Catholic charity that runs “The Friendly Place,” a homeless haven in Kona, does an annual “point in time” survey that attempts to identify as many homeless as possible on a given day.  Last year’s survey found about 700 island-wide; the final tally isn’t in yet for this year, but Manino says early indications are that it will be around 200 higher.

The surveys have revealed a racial component to the problem, too. Fifty percent of those counted last year were of Hawaiian ancestry.

And the visible chronic homeless are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Unknown numbers live in tents or squatter’s shanties or fishing camps in more remote locations, or are staying with other families. And thousands of local residents are either teetering on the brink of homelessness or sliding off the precipice. The County currently has about 6,000 families on waiting lists for the county’s Section 8 rental assistance and other housing programs, which currently serve only about 1800.

And even for those lucky enough to get Section 8 rental assistance, there’s still the challenge of actually finding a place to rent on an island where it’s far more lucrative to build, sell and rent luxury homes than affordable housing.

“We did everything we could to get people into housing. I can’t tell you how frustrating and disheartening it is, to work with someone for months or years to get them through drug rehab and mental health services and to put medical stuff in place finally their name comes up on the Section 8 voucher list and we spent six months searching for nothing. There is no place for people to live,” Marks testified.

And then there’s the issue of people’s stuff. Homelessness isn’t just losing a home; it’s losing a household: all those hundreds of possessions that will either have to be replaced or are simply irreplaceable. The Friendly Place has storage lockers for its clients—though they’re only available if one is ready to stay clean and sober. But the county hasn’t addressed the problem of refurnishing empty rooms or of rescuing households on the verge of being lost. The Chronicle asked several county officials and social service workers if they’d tried applying for grants to get lockers or storage units, or if they’d checked with local storage companies about possible surplus space. None had, though some thought it was a good idea. The county last month held its own “garage sale,” selling off a warehouse full of furniture—mostly office furniture, but even desks and shelves are useful if you’re coming back from a shopping cart.

“I didn’t get any call or e-mail” about that sale, noted Manino. Her organization does get some donations of household goods from the community.

There is some good news. Last December, for the first time in years, the Division of Existing Housing began calling people on its wait lists, offering rental subsidies.  Hirota isn’t sure how many more people her division will be able to help—that will depend on federal funding—but she says her office plans to continue making calls until the year’s end. The county continues to build new affordable rental units in projects such as Na Kahua Hale O Ulu Wini Rentals, which opened its first 40 two-bedroom homes in Kona in November of 2011. That now built out to 76 homes of a projected 96, with 17 currently in use as transitional housing. Hope Services, working with other agencies, recently opened a new program for prisoners re-entering society; of the 8 participants so far, all have found housing and employment. The Friendly Place in Hilo and Under His Wings Ministry in Hilo continue to offer beds, services and fellowship.

But the increases in the supply of beds and services still seem to be stuck, at best, in the tens or scores, and the demand is in the hundreds or thousands. Many of those testifying against Bill 193 suggested that, as one resident put it, “You’ve got to give them a soft place to land before you cut their legs from beneath them. But for many, barring a major change in society’s priority, that “soft place to land” could be a long time away.

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