HPD's new approach to homeless outreach: Compassion

HPD's new homeless outreach tactic is working. The key: compassion
Published: Aug. 31, 2017 at 2:10 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 31, 2017 at 11:21 AM HST
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( Image: Hawaii News Now )
( Image: Hawaii News Now )
( Image: Hawaii News Now )
( Image: Hawaii News Now )

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For the past few months Honolulu police have been trying out a new method of interaction. It's designed to build a bridge with Honolulu's homeless population.

It's less intimidating for some and connects those in need with help without the pressure of a uniformed officer.

"We're looking for this lady who has very severe wounds on her legs," psychiatrist  Chad Koyanagi said.

Koyanagi from the Institute of Human Services walks alongside Honolulu police Lt. Mike Lambert on a downtown outreach.

Lambert's not in his usual police uniform. His badge dangles from a chain around his neck, but instead, he's in plain street clothes. It's part of HPD's new unit called H.E.L.P. Honolulu. The acronym is short for Health, Efficiency, Long-term Partnerships.

On Nuuanu Avenue, they offer help to a homeless man named Michael as he sits in a doorway with a  bandage over his infected left leg.

"You're going to the clinic?" Koyanagi asks.

Lambert stands by, walkie talkie in hand to call for help if Michael agrees to it.

The HPD street outreach teaches plainclothes officers how to interact with homeless people so they are more apt to accept help. And it's working.

"We've already gotten about six people directly that accepted shelters and we've had 43 encounters, meaning that we were able to talk to people, see where they were with their outreach status, as far as service providers go," Lambert said.

"When I'm walking the sidewalks I use every minute to try to explain to them what some of these folks are going through -- addiction, mental illness, dementia, lack of access to care," Koyanagi said.

Near the corner of Bethel and King streets they approach a woman lying ona  bus bench. Her name is Linda.

"This is my friend, officer Lambert," Koyanagi says.

Linda refuses help but not until Lambert learns some basic information. Now he knows where Linda is likely to be and which social service agencies have worked with her.

H.E.L.P. is modeled after police programs on the mainland. Lambert heard about them and convinced his supervisors to let him start a pilot project with HPD.
Outreaches began in May in Chinatown. Now they're branching out.

At Sheridan Park off Piikoi Street Lambert chats with Lyle Nakamasu.

"I doubt that this is how you planned your life to be, right? What we want to try to do is help the homeless population," Lambert tells him.

Nakamasu and his wife pitched a tent at the park. Lambert heard about them through complaints from neighbors. He urged Nakamasu to move into a shelter.
Even though Nakamasu declined he likes the intent of the H.E.L.P. intiative.

"They can reach out to more people that way. Where the officers cannot help, IHS can help and vice versa," he said.

Lambert's team is learning that encounters with homeless people can still be productive even if they go nowhere.

"The way that they're willing to accept us out of uniform is very powerful," he said. "That's the type of connections we're going to need if we're going to tackle this homeless issue and really have them accept the services that we want them to get."

Through simply talking story, H.E.L.P. officers gather valuable information that will help in future encounters. Every interaction is an opportunity to help get the homeless off the street.

"We just keep our fingers crossed and we try our best," Lambert said.

MIchael took them up on their offer and was taken to a clinic.

"Through that medical assist we were able to divert him to a lower level of care, so that we're not inundating the ER, which in turn saves taxpayer dollars," Lambert said.

The hope is eventually all police officers at HPD will be able to access and update H.E.L.P.'s data base, so when they encounter homeless people they know something about them. It will also help the unit's officers find homeless who have moved from one location to another.

H.E.L.P. started slowly with once-a-month outreaches. Soon teams will go out four times a month. The pilot project runs through December, but Lambert hopes to secure funding to make it permanent.

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