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Advocates decry homeless sweeps

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    Homeless people and their tents line Kapalama Canal in Kalihi-Palama. Hours after a city crew cleared the banks of the canal, the homeless people who had been living there moved back to the riverside, leaving some wondering whether the sweep was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Hours after a Honolulu city crew cleared a homeless encampment from the banks of Kapalama Canal, the people who had been living there in tents and other makeshift structures streamed right back in.

There was no place else for them to go on an island where the cost of living is through the roof and there are limited services to help them get back on their feet.

Honolulu has some shelter and housing programs in place, and helped house or financially support more than 1,400 people this year.

But there are long waits for services and a shortage of low-income housing for the homeless population that the National Alliance to End Homelessness said was second per capita in the nation last year after Washington, D.C.

Unlike expensive real estate markets on the mainland, in Hawaii there are only so many places people can move, and clearing encampments isn’t helping, said Jenny Lee, staff attorney for Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

"We have excessive demand for all levels of housing, but it’s the most acute for people at the low end," Lee said

The city has set aside at least $16.8 million for services and to secure apartments for homeless people in 2015, including plans to develop a facility on Sand Island to temporarily house transients in units made from shipping containers.

City officials also are backing $32 million in bonds to finance other housing for homeless people.

Meanwhile, complaints from tourists and residents have prompted the city to ban sitting and lying down on sidewalks in Wai­kiki. The prohibition has been expanded to some neighborhoods in recent months.

Honolulu spends $15,000 a week on the crews that head out daily to clean up tent cities that emerge around Oahu. Workers toss out four to eight tons of junk and garbage — from mattresses and bicycle parts to needles and human waste — every week, said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokes­man for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

"Can you imagine what the city would look like if we weren’t doing that?" Broder Van Dyke said. "It’s a health and safety issue. It’s something that just has to be done. We wish that it wasn’t necessary."

Some see the exercise as futile because the campers generally return.

"If you think about $15,000, that could pay for a family to live for a year," Lee said. "It’s very hard to justify the amount spent clearing people out when they know people will come back in about an hour."

During the recent canal sweep, many homeless people waited it out on side streets in the industrial area near downtown Hono­lulu, their shopping carts weighed down by rugs and sleeping materials while children played near strollers stuffed with clothes and other belongings.

"Sometimes we can’t carry it all, so things get thrown out," said Stefanie Sanchez, who lives along the banks of the Kapalama Canal with her 5-year-old daughter.

Sanchez said she’s on a waiting list to get into Hono­lulu’s Housing First program, which provides homes to chronically homeless individuals and families.

Hawaii is not alone in grappling with what to do about such tent cities.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says people have been living in tent cities or smaller encampments in at least 41 of 50 states. In many cases, residents of the encampments were evicted.

Eric Tars, senior attorney for the group, said that for one of the richest countries in the world, "The fact that we have tent cities shouldn’t be something that’s acceptable. We can and we should do better."

In Waikiki the city enforces a sidewalk ordinance, which requires no notice for a sweep. Officials will take virtually all items to storage, and with the exception of wallets and critical documents, the owner has to pay a $200 fee to retrieve them.

San Jose, Calif., where city officials cleared 200 people last year from an encampment known as "The Jungle," spends about $3.5 million a year dealing with its encampments.

More than half of that amount goes to housing and services for the people living in the encampments, with the rest directed to cleanup and prevention efforts, including watershed protection teams and rangers to deter campers from returning.

"Encampments have impacts on the people who are living in them and their health and safety, but they also have an impact on the environment and they have an impact on the safety and well-being on the surrounding community," said Ray Bramson, a San Jose city official.

Some sweeps leave homeless people further from getting back on their feet, especially when criminal citations or fines occur, Tars said.

"We know there have been people who are saving up for first month and last month, and all of a sudden they’re swept up to jail and they have to pay fines," Tars said. "If the goal is to permanently eliminate these encampments, any kind of criminalizing approaches aren’t beneficial, because they end up putting up more barriers."

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