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Initiative to help homeless falters

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A 2-week-old statewide effort to identify the homeless and give residents the opportunity to direct medical, mental and housing services their way has not led to getting a single person off the streets or beaches.

The response to a state initiative publicizing phone numbers and email addresses for residents on all islands to report homeless people to agencies that provide shelter and other services was encouraging, resulting in 108 calls and emails on Oahu, 40 on the Big Island, 10 on Kauai, three on Maui and two on Molokai. Many of the calls were from people teetering on becoming homeless who have since gotten help.

But the majority of the calls were about people well known to social service providers and who have for years refused to agree to services that would get them off the streets. The calls from residents frustrated by people, often mentally unstable, sleeping in their neighborhood only managed to illuminate the complex issues associated with Hawaii’s homeless population.

“The majority are people we already know, many of whom are severely mentally ill and have severe problems,” said Darlene Hein, the Waikiki Health Center’s director of community services. “We can’t do anything else for them right now because it’s not against the law to be homeless.”

On April 25, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and state homeless coordinator Marc Alexander publicized phone numbers and email addresses for residents wanting to report the homeless. The program requires no extra funding.

But even professionals who work with the homeless are frustrated by the inability to get help for obviously troubled people living on Hawaii’s streets.

Bob Marchant, executive director of Chinatown’s River of Life Mission, called police about a woman in her 70s who has been lying “completely across the sidewalk in her own urine and feces” on Pauahi Street at Maunakea Street since December or January.

“She seems lucid, but refuses help and just lays in the sidewalk in her own filth, forcing you to walk in the street to get around her,” Marchant said.

Police had taken the woman to the Queen’s Medical Center, “but she was right back on the sidewalk.”

REPORT HOMELESS

To report a homeless person and get them help, contact these service providers (email preferred):

>> Waikiki Health Center’s Care-A-Van Program on Oahu: homelesshelp@waikikihc.org or 791-9359

>> HOPE Services on Hawaii Island: info@hopeserviceshawaii.org or 935-3050

>> Family Life Center on Maui: wanda@flcmaui.org or 877-0880

>> Kauai Economic Opportunity: keo@keoinc.org or 245-4077, ext. 228

Marchant called Honolulu police again last week, “but if she can move, they won’t do anything,” he said. “She refuses help. If she was a dog, we’d pick her up and clean her up and take her to a shelter. I understand individual rights. But when the person is urinating and defecating on the sidewalk, isn’t that harmful to herself or to other people? It seems like something should be done.”

Alexander, Hawaii’s homeless coordinator, sympathizes with such frustrations from island residents.

“All we can do is educate the public that, yes, we do reach out to the homeless,” Alexander said. “But we can’t make people act against their will.”

Asked if the new program encouraging residents to identify homeless people is a success or failure, Hein said, “Is it the solution? No. It’s a piece toward that solution.”

On Maui, where the Family Life Center has taken three calls and emails from residents in the past two weeks, director Maude Cumming just sighed when asked whether the program is worth continuing.

After a pause, she said, “We always want to know if there are people we are not finding. So yeah, continue it and maybe there are people we can help.”

On the Big Island, nearly all of the calls and emails came from Hilo and half were from people “who were at risk and can’t make their rent,” said Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services, which coordinates the Big Island calls.

HOPE Services is working with callers to get financial aid to pay their rent and utilities, which could help prevent adding to Hawaii’s homeless population.

Sometime in the next several days, Alexander plans to unveil a homeless plan with nine objectives for the subsequent 90 days. Alexander declined to outline the objectives but said the program encouraging residents to identify homeless people is not among them.

“It’s just something we were able to get done,” Alexander said.

Phone calls from Oahu residents pointed the Waikiki Health Center’s Care-A-Van to three previously unknown homeless people — one in Aina Haina and two in Waipahu, including Kenneth Guerette Jr., 52.

Guerette was lying on a slab of cardboard on the grass of a Waipahu church last week, in the shade of a tree, when two outreach workers and a center nurse drove up to offer help.

Dallas Walker, a housing specialist with the Care-A-Van program, declined to identify Guerette, reveal details about the nearly hour-long conversation they shared or identify the type of medical treatment Guerette received, citing confidentiality.

Afterward, however, Guerette told the Star-Advertiser that he was given a bag full of food and toiletries and was offered shelter, while the nurse treated him for infected wounds on his arms and finger and talked to him about treating his diabetes, depression and ailing back and feet.

Guerette has lived in the church parking lot since March, when he was evicted from his four-bedroom home in Waipahu after it foreclosed. Depending on the condition of his bad back, Guerette either sleeps on the church’s lawn or

inside the battered Acura he shares with his five Chihuahua-mix dogs.

Even though he welcomed the company and assistance from Care-A-Van, Guerette insisted that he won’t abandon his pets so he can sleep indoors in a shelter.

“These guys are my family,” Guerette said while holding one of his Chihuahuas. “I can’t go into a shelter.”

Alexander has heard similar sentiments before. But he was also encouraged that 25 of 100 homeless people recently swept out of Kakaako later checked into homeless shelters.

He called the effort by Hawaii residents to report people such as Guerette “only a step,” adding, “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

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