City unveils two-part plan to tackle homelessness that starts in Waikiki

City unveils two-part plan to tackle homelessness that starts in Waikiki
Published: Jun. 18, 2014 at 10:05 PM HST
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Honolulu Mayor unveils plan to tackle homelessness in Waikiki
Honolulu Mayor unveils plan to tackle homelessness in Waikiki
Honolulu police patrol Waikiki
Honolulu police patrol Waikiki

WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - City leaders unveiled a two-part plan to tackle a growing and complex homelessness issue that will require increased law enforcement presence and additional housing to cater to those in the most need.

"As Waikiki goes, so does O'ahu and so does the rest of the state," said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, explaining why the city's efforts must start in the heart of Hawai'i's bustling tourism industry.

Officials say the first step in their two-part initiative is to increase enforcement of existing laws, like the sidewalk nuisance and stored property ordinances, and to pass new resolutions prohibiting people from sitting or lying on sidewalks and urinating or defecating in public areas.

"We do this first and along the way we identify what issues we have and what challenges we have to overcome," said Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, before adding that enhanced enforcement in Waikiki in recent weeks has considerably decreased the number of homeless in the area.

Kealoha says he understands the homeless will likely pick up and move to other neighborhoods, but his department is doing the best it can and officers are aware they can't arrest the problem away.

"We're city employees, we're government servants -- we're not magicians.  This isn't going to happen overnight, it is going to take some time," explained Kealoha, who says officers are not targeting the homeless.

Mayor Caldwell says Honolulu P.D.'s enforcement is crucial to what he has coined as "compassionate disruption".

"If we let it be convenient to sleep, for example on these sidewalks in Waikiki or our parks around the island, it just means that those activities continue and we don't get people into permanent supportive housing to be treated and made better," Caldwell said.

Social service providers say recent enforcement sweeps have proven if officials make it difficult for people to live on the streets, they will voluntarily move into shelters.

"When people are moved and they are uncomfortable, they make different choices.  And until people are uncomfortable enough, they won't make the choice to accept services sometimes," explained Connie Mitchell, the Executive Director for the Institute for Human Services.

The city has earmarked $47.2 million dollars in rental assistance programs and housing development to create a place for the homeless to go.  $15.2 million of it comes from the city's general and affordable housing fund, while the remaining $32 million is funded through general obligation bonds.

"We're looking at buildings, primarily small buildings that we could convert to homeless sheltering," said Ember Shinn, Managing Director for the City and County of Honolulu.

"We have a real estate industry that's hungry to partner with us.  We've been approached by a number of developers about partnering with them in different kinds of units and we have real estate brokers calling us all the time suggesting buildings that we might be interested in looking at," Shinn said, explaining that community input will be needed before any final decisions are made on location.

City officials say $3 million in rental assistance services will be available by August 1, 2014 and they hope the rest of their housing will be complete in the next year or two.  They say they expect to place approximately 450 people in supportive permanent housing in that time.  The first round is designated for the most ill and chronically-homeless.

"In order to do that you've got to have a way to find them -- to make sure that those with the greatest needs percolate to the top -- and you house them first.  That's why it's called housing first," explained the state's homelessness coordinator Colin Kippen.

"We've started to create a common intake and assessment process and we'll be able to get people triaged into the right level of housing," Kippen said.

Caldwell says once the priority individuals are identified and placed in permanent housing, they'll have access to services to treat addiction, provide mental healthcare and find jobs.

Caldwell says that process starts with the city's enforcement sweeps, which he hopes to add two additional ordinances to law enforcement's arsenal.  Both are specific to the Waikiki area.

The proposed "sit and lie" bill would prohibit people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks in the Waikiki Special District.  Caldwell says the resolution is patterned after Seattle's sit-lie ordinance which was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as not violating the First Amendment or substantive due process.  However, unlike Seattle's ordinance, Caldwell's proposal would be effective 24-hours.  Mayor Caldwell says this is necessary because of the hotel and commercial businesses in the Waikiki area, which cater to the visitor industry on round-the-clock basis.

A second bill would prohibit urinating or defecating in the Waikiki Special District in areas that are publicly-owned property or privately-owned property open for public use.

Homeless have often complained in the past that access to a restroom is the primary factor in their need to use the bathroom in public, since park facilities close at 10 p.m. and don't reopen until 5 a.m.  As a result, Caldwell says the city plans to partner with the Waikiki Business Improvement District to keep one restroom open 24-hours.

"It will be the bathroom closest to the police station, so it's a little safer and we have $52,000 that was put into the budget by Council member Stanley Chang to keep this bathroom open.  Our request is that the visitor industry step up -- some organization working with the WBID -- to open it during that period of time.  We can't, but we believe the $52,000 is a good start and if works than we can look for more money," Caldwell said, adding that it would likely need to be staffed to keep it clean and safe.

George Szigeti, the President and CEO of the Hawai'i Lodging and Tourism Association, supports all of the city's initiatives and believes they are a necessary step in the right direction to care for those in need and maintain the state's economic engine.

"It's the number one complaint I get.  I get it non-stop from visitors.  Just the other day, one came up saying, 'We've been coming here for 15 years and we love Hawai'i, but we're not coming back anymore until you take care of this problem.  So when it hits home like that, I think it's extremely important we all take on this very complex issue," Szigeti said.

Caldwell agrees, saying his plan is really only possible with the support and partnership of all stake-holders -- the state, the city and county, law enforcement, social services providers -- and perhaps most importantly, the private sector.

"We need to do more.  Today is about doing more," Caldwell said.

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