Amid pushback against homeless sweeps, state digs in its heels

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's time to end the game of cat and mouse.

That's the message a coalition of nonprofits serving the homeless is trying to push as it looks to divert much-needed resources from sweeps to programs.

A newly-released memo from Partners in Care, a consortium of service providers, is sparking a renewed debate over whether forcing homeless encampments out actually convinces homeless people to seek shelter.

"Where do folks go? If there is no place for them to go does it really make sense for us to be moving them around," said Gavin Thornton, the consortium's advocacy chairman.

He argues homeless sweeps should only happen if public safety is at risk.

Members of the coalition also say money spent on enforcement should be redirected to housing as well as mental health and drug treatment programs.

But the accusations that a relentless train of government sweeps criminalize homelessness — and don't much help those who are moved — is being rebuffed by the governor's homeless coordinator, Scott Morishige.

"I think it's about balance," Morishige said. "Making sure you balance public safety with the needs of people experiencing homelessness."

Morishige said enforcement efforts are designed to help — not hurt — people living on the street.

"If somebody decides they want to go into housing, that they want to take the outreach worker up on going to shelter we are providing people that opportunity for people to do that," he said. "We're also not just throwing their items away. There is a process to store items to make sure homeless people can get those items back."

Morshige also said that encampments left unchecked can lead to serious health and safety concerns.

He pointed to an encampment in Kakaako, which had grown to more than 300 people in 2015.

But Thornton believes a break from sweeps could be key in getting an upper hand on the crisis.

"It's really important that we allow people to develop some stability in their lives," he said. "Even if they're homeless, that stability is the most likely way they're going to get out of a bad situation."

The city, whose policy of "compassionate disruption" has also led to sweeps islandwide, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a statement, the executive director of Mayor's Office of Housing defended its sweeps:

The city is committed to long term solutions for addressing homelessness, including Housing First, support services, and affordable housing. At the same time we are concerned about the health and safety of persons experiencing homelessness and the general public. Our policy of compassionate disruption was crafted with considerations from many homeless service providers, government agencies, and the community. The policy seeks to balance encouraging those experiencing homelessness to seek assistance and permanent housing options, while ensuring that public areas are fully available to the public. Furthermore, as members of the Executive Branch of the City and County of Honolulu, we are mandated to enforce the laws of our island. The stored property ordinance and park closure hours are some of those laws.

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