We all need to do our part to solve the problem


POSTED: Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All eyes seem to be on the City & County of Honolulu as a shrinking but very visible corps of homeless clusters on our beaches, parks and sidewalks. The public's reaction seems to be that if the homeless are on city property, then it's the city's problem and the city's responsibility to find them shelter.

Not true.

Yes, the city is doing its part. But many of the homeless suffer from mental health conditions and drug and alcohol addictions requiring costly, long-term, medical and social services that are not the city's purview. While larger mainland municipalities provide housing and welfare, operate schools and hospitals, and deliver those services traditionally associated with local government, Hawaii's highly centralized government assigns these duties to the state government rather than the counties.

And, as past actions have demonstrated, the state does realize its obligations. Gov. Linda Lingle, for example, unveiled her long-range homeless plan in late 2005. She appointed a czar to oversee state efforts. Even the Legislature recognized its role when it established the Joint Legislative Housing and Homeless Task Force that recommended a five-year plan to aid the homeless. These actions were clear indications that state decision-makers recognized they had the authority and resources to address the situation, not the counties.

It's also noteworthy that the state evicted homeless who were encamped at Lake Wilson in Wahiawa, at the Waianae Small Boat Harbor, under freeway viaducts and other state properties. Did the state care about where the homeless went? Not really. So where did they go? City parks.

It wasn't until our administration clamped down on illegal camping at Ala Moana Park that the state rushed into action and established a shelter at Kakaako. And it wasn't until the city began its cleanups and closures of Leeward Coast beaches, where the homeless had been encamped for years, that the state opened an emergency shelter and built transitional and permanent housing in Waianae and Kalaeloa. But it hasn't been nearly enough.

The city is not letting up on its park cleanups and illegal camping bans. With Managing Director Kirk Caldwell in the lead, the Honolulu Police Department, Parks Department and Community Services Department have followed a policy of apprising the homeless, through service providers, of programs and shelters, giving them a deadline to leave and then conducting cleanups and night-time closures. We've done this along the Leeward Coast, Waikiki Beach, Kapiolani Park and Ala Wai Park, with more to come.

This is not to say the city hasn't been doing its part to help the homeless. We have been working with homeless service providers who can assist the homeless in finding shelter and services, before we move on the illegal camping.

Through our Department of Community Services, we operate the Section 8 rental assistance program. We provide $7 million in federal grants each year to groups that aid the homeless, such as the Institute for Human Services. Through our Oahu WorkLinks' Rent to Work program, we provide one year of rental assistance to persons who are homeless and have proven their commitment to becoming gainfully employed. Still in its infancy, 38 clients have completed the referral process, 35 vouchers have been issued and 19 people have found apartments to rent. With a one-time infusion of $4 million from the federal stimulus program, we partnered with nonprofits to offer temporary financial assistance and services to either prevent people from becoming homeless or help the homeless find shelter.

Recently I helped dedicate a collaborative project with the state and local nonprofit groups called Sea Winds, a development by Housing Solutions that will provide 20 transitional units and 30 two-bedroom affordable rentals on the Leeward Coast. The city contributed nearly half the cost of this $13.7 million project, the state provided the land and local services providers will identify and refer people once the units are built. The city has also provided funding, using federal grants, for a number of affordable housing projects around the island.

Although still in the public comment phase, we are proposing using city-owned property on the mauka end of River Street for permanent supportive housing (meaning a combination of housing and social services) for homeless individuals who now make their beds in Chinatown doorways and sidewalks. Unfortunately, our good-faith effort is being opposed by residents and businesses who fear a concentration of homeless in their community.

That fear is understandable but unjustified. It's also patently unfair to concentrate the homeless “;problem”; on the Leeward Coast. Folks there have several remaining encampments of homeless, homeless shelters and the landfill. Every community should support efforts to help those who cannot afford housing, and the city's River Street proposal fits that bill for the downtown area.

The city will continue to do its part by making public places clean and safe for everyone. We'll also aid the homeless, within our means and mandate. But it behooves the state government to accept and fulfill its statutory mandates by coming forward with the resources this challenge urgently demands. And a truly meaningful and long-lasting solution will require the support, involvement and a willingness to share the burden from all the people of our island community.


Mufi Hannemann is mayor of the City & County of Honolulu.