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Roundup of homeless feared during APEC

The state has no plan to fix the problem of indigent people specifically for when world leaders visit this fall

By Dan Nakaso

LAST UPDATED: 6:57 p.m. HST, Oct 20, 2011

The absence of a plan to deal with Waikiki's entrenched homeless population for November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference has lawmakers and residents worried about the possibility of a law enforcement "sweep" they say will symbolize Hawaii's failure to solve the ongoing problem.

The state's homeless coordinator told the Star-Advertiser there is no plan to address the homeless problem in Waikiki specifically for APEC, when Waikiki will be center stage before the leaders of 21 APEC nations and 2,500 international journalists.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie's 90-day homeless plan that was launched in May is intended to address overall, long-term solutions, Marc Alexander said last week from Washington, D.C., where he was attending the National Conference on Ending Homelessness.

"I have to be honest with you, APEC has not entered the equation," Alexander said. "People ask me about it all the time. I say, ‘We're looking at the long-range picture. We know we need to house people and provide them help and we are going to do that.' "

State Rep. Tom Brower, who represents Waikiki and serves as chairman of the House Tourism Committee, said, "It's really sad because we had years to prepare for APEC and now we're coming down to the wire. In my mind, we've lost the battle on homelessness so far. … Now the asylum is being run by the inmates."

Alexander said he has not heard any word about potential law enforcement sweeps of homeless people because of APEC.

"Every place APEC has been held they always focus on the homeless and problems of the city," Alexander said. "If there's one homeless person on the street, the media's going to find them. APEC is not in our mindset."

Alexander said he hopes that the 90-day plan helps some homeless people in Waikiki find housing before APEC. "We're just going to keep plugging ahead," Alexander said. "Of course, we want to put the best face forward for the city, but that's other people's challenge. We're going to keep doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way."

The U.S. Secret Service will play a critical role in APEC security with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance, but it declined to comment on potential security plans. Ho­no­lulu police referred questions to the office of Mayor Peter Carlisle, which issued a statement that said:

"The city is working with state and federal agencies to address public safety for all citizens during the APEC conference. We will continue to partner with the state and service providers to assist those who are experiencing homelessness. Please remember that it is not a crime to be homeless, and that we cannot restrict the homeless from areas where the general public is granted access. It is important for the city to continue to work with our partners to ensure our homeless citizens are aware of the various shelters and services available to them."

LAST WEEK, MORE than a dozen homeless people enjoyed the shade of the walkway that runs between the Ala Wai Canal and the Hawai‘i Convention Center, the epicenter of the upcoming APEC conference.

Kenny Chisholm, 54, said Honolulu police have issued him $85 citations for illegal camping in the area and that warrants were later issued for his arrest when he could not pay the fines.

"I spent a couple of nights in jail, no big deal," Chisholm said. "We're not troublemakers."

Blue signs posted at the entrance to the walkway clearly announce that it's illegal to have tents or shopping carts in the area.

But Waikiki Neighborhood Board Member Les Among, who lives across the Ala Wai Canal, frequently sees people sleeping next to the convention center when he comes home at about 1:30 a.m. "They're sleeping there right now and it's getting worse," Among said. "It's going to be a black eye when APEC comes to town. It's terrible."

Donna Davidson recently moved into an apartment next to the convention center and walks her Jack Russell terrier, Z, "20 times a day," Davidson said.

"Instead of a view of the water, I look out to see them sleeping," she said. "They're there all day, every day."

Slovenian tourists Breda and Ian Pivk visited Waikiki last year and have returned for a four-week vacation. They said last week that the number of homeless people seemed to have grown.

"I don't remember so many homeless before," Breda said.

The ACLU of Hawaii plans to train "large numbers of individuals" to observe police, protesters and the homeless during APEC and has been meeting with Honolulu police and the Secret Service, said Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Hawaii.

"The Honolulu Police Department, Secret Service, and other governmental agencies involved with APEC are well aware that they cannot simply sweep ‘undesirable' people off the street, and they have assured the ACLU — in multiple meetings with our office, beginning in May 2010 — that they will follow the law," Gluck said in a statement. "The government can't suspend the Constitution just to make a good impression on visitors."

FORMER MAYOR Mufi Hannemann spent years addressing the homeless in Waikiki and in other parts of Oahu and is now president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Hotel & Lodging Association. APEC, Hannemann said, "should serve as a catalyst for dealing with the homeless issue."

Waikiki hotels have been asking state and city officials about what they plan to do about Waikiki's homeless during APEC, "and they say they're working on it," Hannemann said. "But we haven't seen anything that has details. We're all anxiously waiting to see how we can participate."

There is no accurate count of homeless people in Waikiki, said Darlene Hein, director of community services for the Waikiki Health Center, which provides homeless services and oversees the Next Step Shelter in Kakaako.

In November, there will likely be about 50 spaces available in homeless shelters outside Waikiki — but nowhere near enough room to accommodate every homeless person currently sleeping in Waikiki.

"There is (capacity) for some people," Hein said. "Could everybody fit into our shelter system? Probably not."

For APEC, Hein said, "Very important people will be coming to our island and we know that security's going to be really high. Any time security is really high, all sorts of people get pushed around, including individuals that are homeless."

Reps. Brower and John Mizuno, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, continue to push for a homeless "safe zone" somewhere on Oahu with 24-hour security where homeless people could sleep and receive medical and substance abuse treatment, job training and housing referrals, among other services.

Even a six-month pilot program for a safe zone — if it could begin soon — would ease the pressure from APEC, Mizuno said.

But there is no state money for the estimated $300,000 cost and no one has offered land to house a safe zone, Mizuno said.

"We don't want Waikiki to look like a Third World country," Mizuno said. "We need to be showing our ‘A-game.' With APEC right around the corner, we need to take action now. We can't take action later."

Like Mizuno, Hannemann said he thinks a last-minute law enforcement sweep of Waikiki's homeless before APEC "will demonstrate that this has all been talk."

"The last thing we want to see is a sweep," Hannemann said. "We have this game changer for Hawaii, to demonstrate that we're a great place to do business and a sweep will say, ‘We blew it.' The message to the world will be: ‘What happened to paradise, the Hawaii we've all read about and heard about?' "

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