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StarBulletin.com

Better 'homeless' policy needed


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POSTED: Saturday, December 05, 2009

Oahu's street people won't be swept away.

The sooner city and state government officials, community and faith leaders and the general public confront that fact, the sooner a workable solution that serves all interests can be forged.

While the city is correct to clear homeless “;campers”; from an oceanside stretch of Kapiolani Park that has become increasingly inhospitable to tourists and other Oahu residents, doing so does not address the root causes of the problem. It simply relocates the population, just as earlier sweeps of Ala Moana Beach Park spurred the homeless people farther east into Waikiki and the heart of Hawaii's economic engine.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann is correct in his assessment that those occupying Kapiolani Park and other public spaces are not forced there by a lack of shelter space. There are beds available on Oahu. The Institute for Human Services alone says it could accommodate about 50 more men and 40 more women at its shelters in Iwilei every night.

It seems the desperate individuals so visible on the streets and in the parks mainly represent a small but growing subset of the overall homeless population: chronic street people who resist shelters and may be mentally ill, drug addicted or otherwise impaired.

A census last January counted 390 chronically homeless people on Oahu, up from 111 in 2007. The highest concentration — a total of 250 people sleeping in cars, parks, on the streets or in emergency shelters — was in the region encompassing Chinatown and Waikiki.

Helping them requires a pragmatic yet compassionate approach that simultaneously protects Hawaii's image as an attractive tourist destination and restores public spaces to the rightful use of the general public.

It's not an impossible dream, and there are national models that Honolulu could follow.

One promising policy is called Housing First, which provides permanent, affordable rental housing for people straight off the street, without imposing rules common at shelters that dissuade hard-core homeless from staying overnight.

The idea is to get the toughest, neediest cases within four walls, then provide the psychiatric care, drug rehabilitation and alcoholism treatment that helps them function better in society.

Front-line providers swear it works, but it's a tough sell politically. Taxpayers generally don't like to “;reward”; chronic drunks, neighbors oppose construction, and in this fiscal climate, money for anything is hard to come by.

The city had a plan for such housing — a proposal called The River Street Residences in Chinatown — but community opposition stalled it.

As homeless individuals grow ever more visible and desperate, bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood, it's time to revive the discourse on the Housing First model in Honolulu. Air the evidence for and against the idea among all Oahu residents, not just one neighborhood.

Let's solve this problem while we can, before it truly spirals out of control.