As Oahu’s unsheltered homeless population grows, mayor vows to stick to sweeps

Updated: Feb. 28, 2019 at 5:30 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Despite a years-long effort to push Oahu’s homeless population into shelters, the number of people living on the streets of Honolulu is the highest it’s been in at least a decade.

Preliminary data from an annual point-in-time count of Oahu’s homeless population, which was released Wednesday night, showed there are more unsheltered homeless people in Honolulu now than there were in 2015, when the state government declared homelessness a crisis.

The swollen Kaakako encampment which partially prompted that declaration — estimated to have housed more than 300 people — garnered national attention. Today, the same area remains inundated with campsites, and an estimated 100 people are still living there, including children.

As the numbers on the streets worsen, Mayor Kirk Caldwell began a press conference he called on Thursday to address the report by touting success, referencing a four-percent drop in overall homelessness —a result of fewer people in the shelters.

“Any decrease, I welcome. It says certain things are working,” said Caldwell.

During a single night last month, when the count was conducted, volunteers tallied a total of 2,401 people living on the streets of Oahu. That’s 12 percent more than there were last year.

At the same time, 1,910 people were counted at homeless shelters — down 19 percent.

Averaged out, the island’s total homeless population on the streets and in shelters is down four percent.

The failure to reduce the number of people living on the streets of Oahu did not discourage the mayor, who said he’s sticking to his strategy. Caldwell says he believes sweeps are part of the solution, vowing not to waver from his long-standing policy of ‘compassionate disruption.’

“We’re going to continue to enforce,” said Caldwell. “We’re not backing away from our efforts. We’re going to do it in a more focused and consistent way.”

Members of the mayor’s administration also stressed the need for more affordable housing, relaying that increasing the city’s inventory continues to be among their top priorities.

“Every time rent goes up $100 a month, homelessness goes up 6% to 32%. So we know that we have to address this issue,” said Marc Alexander, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

When asked about the numbers, the state’s lieutenant governor, Josh Green said more needs to be done.

“There’s been good work on many fronts, but something has to change,” Green said.

With the city’s help, Green says he wants to focus on creating temporary zones where people can get social services and medical care — a place where they won’t have to worry about getting swept.

“In some regions, people will simply not go into a building. Those individuals have to have a different solution,” said Green. “There has to be a compromise, and we will work on that compromise in the next several months.”

Green tells Hawaii News Now that negotiations with the city are currently underway to allow what are known as ‘lift zones.’ The plan would allow Honolulu police officers to set up military-style tents in neighborhood parks, where homeless people could go to sleep and access services.

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