Connie Mitchell


POSTED: Friday, September 25, 2009

The Institute for Human Services is well known as a source of meals and shelter for homeless people, but recently the Honolulu nonprofit has also emphasized an array of educational, health and social programs aimed at helping people before they end up on the streets.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness lists “;10 essentials”; communities need, including outreach, emergency prevention and affordable housing, said Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS.

“;We've been trying to identify those people who are very vulnerable to becoming homeless and developing ways to triage them as they are coming out of prison or a mental health facility,”; said Mitchell, 52, a former psychiatric nurse who has overseen IHS's two emergency shelters for three years. “;Community re-entry programs are very important.”;

A census commissioned every two years by the city found slightly fewer homeless people overall on Oahu in 2009 than in 2007, and that more of them were sheltered, mainly in facilities built in the past few years. But that improvement was tempered by a surge in the subset of “;chronic”; homeless individuals, defined as those with a disabling condition such as mental illness or drug abuse and who may be sleeping on the streets.


QUESTION: What do you think of the bill before the City Council that would ban sleeping on the sidewalk?

ANSWER: I think that trying to establish some guidelines is good, but when you are trying to enforce something like that without the supportive services to address the underlying problems, it tends to get very punitive. ... It just really subjects people to some very precarious circumstances. I understand the intent of Councilman (Charles) Djou's bill, but in other cities where it's been implemented, there's also been a strong outreach component that can respond so that you are not just criminalizing homelessness.

Q: Is the number of people IHS helps increasing?

A: Yes, absolutely, especially on the men's side. We have about 100 people who are not sheltered coming in to eat every day.

Q: Are there beds available at IHS shelters?

A: We have space. In the past few years, Oahu has added several shelters, plus transitional housing, especially for families. There's been a big improvement in that. So we generally have space for single men, single women and families with children on any given night.

Q: Getting back to the sidewalk sleeping bill ...

A: I think part of it is getting setting parameters for what people can and cannot do, that's what the bill does. But the other part of that is the outreach—getting them into the programs that can keep them off the street. Those funds have been slashed. There is really limited funding for outreach ... and that part is really important

Q: A lot of people seem to think that homeless people flock to Hawaii from elsewhere for the warm winters. Is that true?

A: It had been true in the past, but if you look at the data now it's lower. ... In our shelters, about 20 percent of the individuals seeking services have lived in Hawaii less than a year. But that means that 80 percent of them have been here longer than a year.

Q: What about the impact of the poor economy?

A: I think that one of the things that we are seeing is people who are falling into homelessness for the first time. One of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the cost of housing here is ridiculously high, whether renting or buying. ... What I'm encountering is that the economic collapse has surfaced a general problem, which is that folks have been living on debt, on credit cards. People's financial management skills are really needing some help and remediation. ... So we have financial-management classes that help with budgeting and just understanding credit.

Q: For the chronic homeless, do you have the services available once you are able to get them in the door?

A: Yes. We have Hina Mauka providing outreach and treatment right here on site, a mental health team, specialized family services. We're partnering with an array of agencies to help people with everything from substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, financial management. ... There's a tremendous amount of services that are available. ... It's supporting them and getting them to move in that direction that's the most challenging.

Q: What outreach is there now?

A: We do some, especially at Aala Park. Waikiki Health Center and Kalihi-Palama are out there a lot, working hard, identifying people, getting them to come in, but they have to cover a very wide territory with a shrinking amount of resources. ... The business community has been so awesome in so many ways, giving a lot of support. ... They know it's a problem. We know it's a problem. It's a problem in Waikiki, it's a problem Downtown, other neighborhoods, too. ... But we've got to come up with some better solutions, and one of the major national best practices is a policy called Housing First, which is to build housing that can accommodate people right from the street and then wrap them in services to keep them off the streets, treat their mental illness, provide (drug) rehab, deal with the root problems.

Q: Is that River Street? (The River Street Residences proposed by the city would provide permanent, affordable rentals in Chinatown for the chronically homeless.)

A: Yes, it is. That type of program has been very successful in other cities and it has always faced resistance because the neighbors just don't know what to expect and they have preconceived notions, but it works out.

Q: Is that project still on track?

A: It's actually not going anywhere right now because there has been a lot of community resistance. But I also do believe that a lot of the community does support it, but hasn't been as vocal as the opponents. And it is unfortunate, because it is the best solution. One building is not going to solve chronic homelessness, but it's the best way to start.

Q: And it's worked elsewhere?

A: Absolutely.

» National Alliance to End Homelessness: www.endhomelessness.org/
» Institute for Human Services: www.ihshawaii.org