Friday’s annual Statewide Homeless Awareness Conference represented equal parts halftime pep talk and a reminder of how much work needs to be done to further reduce the nation’s highest per capita rate of homelessness.
On the eve of the next nationwide homeless census in January, called the Point in Time Count, Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, reminded the more than 200 government officials, politicians and social workers who gathered at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Kapolei that the state’s overall homeless numbers have gone down in each of the last two years.
“Look at how far we’ve come,” Morishige said. “We really have made a lot of progress.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell spoke after Morishige and said that when Thanksgiving arrives “there will be people in the city and county of Honolulu and the state who will not be around the table, will be in a park or (on) a sidewalk — that, yes, I have enforced against. They will not have a meal, they will not have a bathroom, they will not have a shower and they won’t feel the love that we feel, and that’s not acceptable at the end of the day.
“I say we can make a difference, we can do better, we can house more people,” Caldwell said. “We can’t turn our back on the problem, no matter how difficult it is. So I want to say thank you so much.”
A new sense of urgency began in summer 2015, when one of America’s biggest homeless encampments — comprised of more than 300 people — sprang up in Kakaako next to Kakaako Waterfront Park as the city cracked down on homeless people in Waikiki.
“We had rapes, stabbings, theft,” Caldwell said. “It was the weak preying on the weaker and some strong preying on the weaker.”
The city and state then teamed up to clear the encampment off of state, city and private land after state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was chased by two teenage cousins as he photographed the encampment. Brower was then beaten by a mob in front of the Children’s Discovery Museum as children and their parents watched.
In the aftermath the city and state fully embraced the national model known as Housing First, which places the most chronically homeless people in fair-market rental units and guarantees payments to landlords while providing social service help for everything from mental health to substance abuse problems.
As the city began enforcing laws with names such as “sit-lie,” “stored property ordinance” and “sidewalk nuisance ordinance,” Gov. David Ige and Caldwell teamed up to plead with landlords and property owners to rent their units to Housing First candidates.
The city at the same time began buying up properties across Oahu to house the homeless — especially homeless families — and a slew of other homeless-related projects were born.
>> The creation of the city’s Hale Mauliola “navigation center” for homeless adults and couples on Sand Island, made from shipping containers. It was Oahu’s first homeless housing project to allow pets, a major barrier that prevents homeless pet owners from finding housing.
>> The opening of the state’s Family Assessment Center out of an old shed in Kakaako next to Kakaako Waterfront Park, which is designed to temporarily house homeless families while helping parents find jobs and permanent housing.
>> Businessman Duane Kurisu’s Kahauiki Village project near Sand Island, which provides low-cost, permanent housing, on-site child care and offers of employment for adults willing to work. Kahauiki Village is now being expanded into a second phase. Kurisu is founder and chairman of the aio Group and also serves on the board of directors of Oahu Publications Inc., parent company of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
>> The city’s purchase of a four-story industrial building in Iwilei that is scheduled to become the first all-in-one homeless project of its kind in the islands and will provide showers, laundry machines, two floors of permanent housing, and social services pertaining to mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse.
>> The opening of a dozen igloo-shaped domes last month by The First Assembly of God Church on its Kaneohe land.
Behind the scenes, Morishige and the state Department of Human Services angered many operators of homeless shelters with new requirements that now require shelters to focus on moving clients out quickly by helping them find jobs and housing with the help of so-called “housing navigators.”
At the same time, federal housing and homeless officials have repeatedly told the Star-Advertiser that the islands enjoy cooperation among law enforcement, health care providers, social service agencies and state and county governments rarely seen on the mainland.
Caldwell praised Ige, who was not present, and called the governor “someone who has gone out and done things in a very quiet way, never pats himself on the back, never boasts, ‘Tantaran — this is what I’ve done.’”
But Caldwell saved most of his praise for those who do the unsung work of trying to help the homeless get off the street, often at night, usually with little pay.
“You give me hope,” Caldwell said, “because you’re here and you care.”