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State clarifies advice on feeding homeless

Charitable groups are encouraged to offer more support than just distributing meals

By Pat Gee

LAST UPDATED: 1:41 a.m. HST, Jun 4, 2011

The most controversial point so far in Gov. Neil Abercrombie's 90-day plan to address homelessness, announced May 17, is one that discourages churches and other organizations from feeding homeless people in public areas because it enables them to continue living on the streets and in parks instead of finding permanent shelter.

At a meeting attended by more than 100 people Wednesday night at the Parish of St. Clement in Makiki, state homelessness coordinator Marc Alexander said, "I never said to stop feeding the homeless. The plan doesn't say stop feeding the homeless. We said there's a proper way to do it."

(The state plan says in part, "Encourage charitable organizations to consider programs based on best available research and practices, and discourage programs, including certain food distribution programs that support the choice to live in parks or on sidewalks.")

Alexander recommended that churches and charities instead serve food at shelters, community or senior centers, or at their own locations. Most important, providers need to offer support services to help the homeless find shelter and work and build trusting relationships to encourage them to seek help.

"If all we do is keep feeding and giving them money — don't give money to panhandlers! — then there's no incentive for them to go and get help," Alexander said. "We've got third and fourth generations of homeless people. That's gotta stop!"

Among other values, "Jesus is about leadership and giving them not a handout, but a hand up. Instead of giving them a fish, teach them how to fish," said Alexander, former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu.

Alexander has been meeting with various churches since the plan was announced and was invited to St. Clement's, which has fed the hungry and given each person a bag of groceries once a month for more than 20 years at the church, said the Rev. Liz Zivanov, St. Clement's rector.

Before Alexander spoke, Zivanov told the Star-Advertiser: "The governor's policy about not feeding the homeless? That's going to be a tough sell to Christians who take Jesus seriously when hecondemns those who see the hungry and do not feed them, and who see the thirsty and give them nothing to drink.

"Rather than withholding food, it's time to develop actual homes to house those who can't afford the high cost of housing in Hawaii, no matter how many jobs they work. I'm hoping that there is some serious consideration given to using the schools that are being shut down and converting them to low-income affordable housing or transition complexes."

The state strategy is aimed at clearing a major number of homeless people from streets, beaches and parks in 90 days and developing a long-term plan to address affordable housing and other needs. Hawaii has an estimated 6,000 people in need of shelter every night, most on Oahu, Alexander said. The plan coordinates government, nonprofit and business programs, and community and faith-based organizations to resolve a "complicated, very difficult, challenging problem. There is no magic bullet," he said.

Molly Wilkinson, who helps feed about 200 people every Tuesday at Ala Moana Beach Park through a Catholic ministry of the Newman Center, said her main concern was how soon to cut off the meals.

"I just can't leave these people cold. We're very anxious to formulate a plan to gently make a transition. A lot of them don't have the savvy to plan where to get their next meal," Wilkinson said. After hearing Alexander, she understood the state did not mean not to feed homeless people at all.

"It's right — we have to move people along," she said. "But until these people get help, that's our concern. We don't want to abruptly jolt the food away."

Alexander said St. Clement's and Calvary by the Sea Lutheran Church, which he recently met with, as well as others that provide meals at their churches, should continue doing so at their locations, not in public places.

"People come to them; it's a very different thing than going to the parks. The problem with parks is that it keeps the homeless there, and it makes public areas not as accessible to the public," he said.

Richard Walker, a disabled Vietnam War veteran whose pension has been held up for more than a year, has been homeless for four years. With only food stamps and welfare to live on, he asked Alexander, "Can you explain to me how I can afford that apartment? I've tried the shelters and they are full."

Alexander said, "Actually, they're not full. The shelters always have space at IHS and in the Waianae areas." At another point he said, "There's no family that needs to be unsheltered. We have space for families; we will make space."

In response to a Star-Advertiser editorial June 1 that cited laws in other states that ban feeding the homeless, Alexander said that he wants to avoid passing new laws that would criminalize the homeless or those who feed them, because "the homeless are smart. They always find a way around the law." He added, "The 90 days is not a deadline. It just gives us some focus."

Arlina Wong, president of T-SOCS (Together-Strengthening Our Community Services), said, "The plan needs to provide for people who will not go into a shelter. They want their freedom and don't want to live under someone else's rules. Many people have some kind of emotional or mental instability. Some are socially inept — they weren't raised with certain values, and they don't know how to take care of themselves.

"Our philosophy is that the church needs to go back into the community and take care of them. Love your neighbor as you do yourself. That doesn't mean give them everything, but help them earn a quality life for themselves," Wong said.

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