LAST OF THREE PARTS
Hawaii’s rampant homelessness clearly has the attention of island voters who aren’t pleased with how Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell are handling the crisis, according to the latest Hawaii Poll.
The poll found that 56 percent of registered voters statewide say Ige is not doing a good job on homelessness, while 34 percent approve of his handling of the crisis and 9 percent did not know or refused to answer. On Oahu, where the crisis is most acute, Ige’s numbers slipped even further, with 58 percent disapproving and 33 percent approving of how he is handling the issue.
Caldwell received better marks. Still, 47 percent of Oahu voters disapproved of his handling of homelessness versus 45 percent who say he is doing a good job and 8 percent saying they don’t know or refusing to answer.
To Rae Hagen, 76, of Kaneohe, homelessness has “just gotten so out of hand and disturbing,” she said, adding, “There have not been very successful forays in trying to correct it.”
The six weeks spent cleaning out the Kakaako makai encampment resulted in the occupants spreading into nearby state parks and eventually back to Kakaako makai and represented a wider practice of “just moving them out with no place to go — just moving the problem around the island,” Hagen said. “That’s disturbing. We have to go back a step and try to find some solutions.”
The Hawaii Poll, conducted by Ward Research Inc. for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, polled 619 registered voters statewide, including 433 on Oahu, between Dec. 28 and Jan. 9 on cellphones and landlines. The margin of error is 3.9 percent for statewide questions and 4.7 percent for Oahu questions.
The poll recorded a flip in priorities for voters, with 24 percent on Oahu saying homelessness is the most important issue; rail came in a distant second place at 16 percent. In January 2015 the Hawaii Poll found a plurality of respondents — 19 percent — considered rail the island’s most important issue, just ahead of traffic and the “economy/cost of living/jobs.” Homelessness ranked fourth in importance.
Six months later the Kakaako makai homeless encampment exploded into a major health and safety problem after state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked while photographing the area. During an August census, 293 people were counted living in wood-reinforced tents and tarps around the University of Hawaii medical school and Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center. There was a spike in assaults and 911 calls to police, firefighters and paramedics from homeless people.
In the months that followed, city and state officials continued to crack down on homeless encampments across Oahu as officials search for long-term solutions for an island with the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country.
Even with a margin of error of 4.7 percent, the Oahu results of the latest Hawaii Poll show a clear chasm between concerns over homelessness and rail, said Rebecca Ward, president and CEO of Ward Research.
“The difference between the 24 percent mention for homelessness and the 16 percent mention for rail tested statistically significant,” Ward said. “That is, it is highly unlikely that the difference was caused by chance; rather, it is most likely due to actual differences in opinion.”
Other results of the Hawaii Poll showed signs of optimism.
In the latest poll, 14 percent of Oahu registered voters said Oahu’s homeless problem has gotten better. In the July Hawaii Poll only 4 percent said the problem had gotten better.
The latest survey of registered voters also found that 64 percent say homelessness has affected the economy and discouraged visitors from returning — compared with 71 percent of residents who were surveyed in July.
Quality of life
In the latest poll, 64 percent of Oahu respondents said homelessness had reduced their own quality of life at beaches, in parks, on sidewalks and in other places where homeless people congregate, down from 70 percent in July.
But 47 percent of Oahu respondents in the December-January poll said homelessness is such a big problem that it will never be resolved — compared with 44 percent of residents who gave that answer in July.
There was no statistically significant change in attitudes toward the city’s “sit-lie ban” and other policies that prohibit homeless people from occupying city sidewalks and parks.
In January 2015 the Hawaii Poll found that 73 percent agreed with the city’s policies, compared with 76 percent in the most recent survey.
To Howard Sugai, 68, of Mililani, homelessness represents “a major concern for me, if not the No. 1 concern.”
“I’m very sympathetic to the plight because I know a lot of people that are just one paycheck from being homeless themselves,” Sugai said. “We need to find real solutions to get our homeless back into permanent housing with dignity. A lot of people are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control. They need the right mental health treatment, the right drug treatment to get permanent living quarters with dignity and honor.”
‘Always a top issue’
As city and state officials continue to tear down homeless encampments, Sugai — a retired Army lieutenant colonel — said he worries about the effects on other neighborhoods.
“Having homeless people relocate to other parts of the island reminds me of when I was in the Army and we referred to ‘mission creep’ (a gradual shift in objectives). It slowly affects other parts of our community and businesses in the form of increased crime, assaults, drug problems that are directly attributed to the homeless being relocated.”
Chad Cambra, a 30-year-old paralegal and master’s degree candidate in social work at the University of Hawaii, said homelessness on Oahu “is always going to be a top issue.”
When he was younger, Cambra said he considered Oahu’s homeless population primarily “dirty Vietnam veterans.” But as a sophomore at the University of Oregon, Cambra returned to Oahu one summer to work as a Summer Fun adviser and realized that one of his student aides was homeless.
“I didn’t realize his family lived by Lake Wilson,” Cambra said. “It was a moment when you realize that homelessness hits close to home. My mindset changed to be more sympathetic.”
Today, Cambra said, homelessness is the most important issue facing Oahu. “When you see how many people are affected,” he said, “it doesn’t seem like we’re helping them.”