KAKAAKO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A community "in crisis" -- that's how one of the leading national experts on homelessness describes the growing encampment in Kaka'ako.
"I think there is a sense of crisis here around the issues of encampments and people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, but I see the opportunity for that crisis to become a source for lasting change and that's really what we want to make sure -- is that we're not just responding to a crisis in an urgent way, but we're also using it as an opportunity to make progress on the longer term strategies and solutions that can prevent us from being in a crisis-mode over and over and over again," said Matthew Doherty, the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
After driving through the area earlier this week, Doherty described it as one of the largest encampments he's seen and one of the most troubling.
"For any individual or family who experiences a single night of homelessness, that's a crisis. For people who are experiencing that situation on an on-going basis with no resolution in sight, the crisis becomes even more intense and it becomes a traumatizing experience that we really need to find the ways to provide those quick resolutions," Doherty said.
A state survey completed in August found 293 people are living on the streets of the Kaka'ako Waterfront Park area near the Children's Discovery Center
and University of Hawai'i at Manoa Medical School. Officials say more than 40% of them are families.
According to Doherty, while tent cities are increasingly becoming a challenge in other cities -- he's never encountered an encampment with such a high percentage of families living on the sidewalks.
"The idea that there are children sleeping there tonight to me is really distressing and is justification for the sense that we need to create an urgent response to resolve that element of the problem as quickly as we can," Doherty said. "Any solution, any strategy needs to about what's the pathway from this experience to a permanent place to live and sleep and stay and raise children and the strategies all need to focus on how do we create those quick pathways."
Officials say while there are often empty shelter beds for individuals across O'ahu each night, there are only growing wait lists for homeless people with children. Governor David Ige says state officials are trying to identify locations to create additional transitional shelter space.
"We are also working with all the existing providers and trying to see how we can move people from one shelter to another if it can create more spaces for families so that as we consider enforcement, we would have places to direct the homeless," Ige explained.
Ige says his office is trying to accelerate the process as quickly as it can within the restraints of current laws.
"Yes, it its a crisis but it's also something that's not going to go away anytime soon, you know? It is a pervasive problem. It's been here for more than a decade. You know, we need to be anxious about taking action and finding solutions in the short term, but I think most importantly we can't take our eye off the long-term objective -- which really is to get homeless people into permanent supportive housing,"
said Governor Ige.
Doherty says Kaka'ako is proof current strategies for addressing homelessness in our community need to be reassessed.
"We would never want to see encampments as being an accepted part of how we respond to homelessness,"said Doherty. "We need to look to a vision that we can move people quickly from any experience of homelessness back into stability, back into our communities as quickly as we can."
While Doherty says there are a number of successful approaches state and local officials are already looking into and beginning to implement, one
strategy he says definitely doesn't work is the criminalization of homelessness.
"Strategies that focus on dispersing people or moving people to other locations just don't actually create a resolution to the challenge and it can actually be unproductive and make it more difficult to engage those individuals and families and link them to the services and housing that they need," said Doherty.