Honolulu’s efforts last year to reduce homelessness resulted in 772 people getting off of Oahu streets, which Mayor Kirk Caldwell says represents an unprecedented success for a city struggling with the highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country.
“That is a victory,” Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in his Honolulu Hale office.
Despite a legal setback and the explosion of the notorious Kakaako makai encampment that resulted in a spike in assaults, ambulance trips and calls to 911 last summer, Caldwell said the state and city worked together to reduce homelessness and that there were other victories, including finding housing for 596 homeless veterans among the 772.
The city fell short of reaching what’s called “functional zero” to end homelessness for military veterans because it could not get the last remaining 51 veterans on Oahu into a system designed to find them temporary or permanent housing by the end of last year.
At the start of 2015, first lady Michelle Obama personally lobbied Caldwell during a trip to Washington, D.C., to accept the nationwide “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness” in her husband’s hometown.
“We didn’t hit it,” Caldwell said Wednesday in an interview at his office.
But Caldwell said the challenge nevertheless spurred his administration to do more to reduce homelessness for everyone across the island, including families and children and the so-called “chronically homeless” who sometimes have mental health, alcohol and drug problems.
The Kakaako makai encampment at one point in August included 293 people living in wood-reinforced tents and tarps. It turned into a major health and safety problem after state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked in June while photographing the encampment.
Federal officials called the encampment one of the worst they had seen in the country, and it took the city six weeks to methodically break it down, only to see some of the homeless occupants walk next door onto state land — and eventually return to Kakaako makai.
In the aftermath the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii won a federal court challenge to get the city to store homeless people’s belongings so they can be reclaimed, instead of immediately discarding them.
Despite all of the unwanted focus on Kakaako and the ongoing presence of dozens of tents and people along the Kakaako shoreline, Caldwell maintains the city’s sweeps — what he calls “compassionate disruption” — are working.
The efforts to clear out homeless encampments is just one part of an overall strategy that Caldwell envisions to move people into shelters, then into transitional housing such as the new Sand Island Hale Mauliola “navigation center” built out of refurbished shipping containers. From there, Caldwell wants formerly homeless clients to go into so-called Housing First apartments where they’re allowed to drink alcohol and use drugs while getting social service help to deal with their issues.
Caldwell hopes they eventually move into long-term or permanent housing, freeing up transitional and temporary housing for others coming off of the streets.
It begins by breaking up encampments and keeping city sidewalks clear of tents and tarps.
“Fewer people are getting beat up and assaulted,” Caldwell said of Kakaako makai. “Is it resolved? No. Is it better? Yes.”
Caldwell’s assessment is not universal.
“They didn’t accomplish anything,” said John Mantanona, 57, who moved back to Kakaako makai after a sweep last year, one of a dozen times Mantanona said he was chased around the streets of Kakaako in 2015.
Mantanona rolled a cigarette as he sat on the grass of Kakaako Makai Gateway Park near about 50 other homeless people who last week were occupying the Hawaii Community Development Authority’s park between the University of Hawaii medical school and the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.
Mantanona and his friend Douglas Sencio, also 57, said the city’s and state’s ongoing sweeps only waste money and resources — and make homeless people like them hardened.
“It makes no sense,” Sencio said.
As he stood next to a “no trespassing” sign taped to a tree, Mantanona said, “We’ve complied with everything they’ve asked. For what? They’re crushing us. Help us.”
Council Chairman Ernie Martin said he was “disappointed” by the Caldwell administration’s homeless efforts last year, including a missed opportunity to buy the old Hilo Hattie property on Nimitz Highway and convert it into a homeless shelter.
And all of the manpower that was focused on the Kakaako makai encampment produced few lasting results, Martin said.
“It was nice for a day,” he said. “It should have never gotten to that state. It was very disgraceful … to have allowed it to happen. … Despite our best efforts, we’re losing the battle.”
Last summer, people across Oahu ranked homelessness a distant fourth in importance, according to the results of the Hawaii Poll conducted by Ward Research Inc. for the Star-Advertiser. But the latest Hawaii Poll, conducted between Dec. 28 and Jan. 9, found that homelessness had risen to become the most important issue facing Oahu. Honolulu’s rail project ranked a distant second.
“It looks like now there’s more attention paid to the seriousness of homelessness,” Brower said.
Brower and others contend last summer’s attack on him in Kakaako makai helped turn public perception and forced state and city officials to do more.
Homelessness “is everywhere,” Brower said, adding, “For the people who come here, that’s what visitors talk about. But people also now realize that we can fix this.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said, “I believe that we’ve started to make some real progress.”
The state and city are working together, Morishige said, as are social service agencies that now share a uniform database of Hawaii’s homeless and regularly meet to discuss individual clients.
All of the data and outreach efforts “helped us better understand the needs of the homeless populations and encampments that previously have been difficult to tackle,” Morishige said.
For homeless families living in Kakaako makai, the data collected by social workers showed that a typical family of four earned barely more than $500 a month, which Morishige called “a very deep level of poverty.”
So the families were steered into programs to help them manage their finances and save money for rent, Morishige said.
Homeless people also revealed “barriers to get into homeless shelters,” Morishige said, which explained why so many shelter beds remain empty while people continue to live outdoors.
“We started to provide bus transportation to get to shelters,” he said. “We worked with (shelter) providers to increase their hours of access, rather than asking them (homeless clients) to leave during the day.”
By targeting individual needs, Morishige said, programs aimed at providing one-time rental deposits and other financial assistance in just the past two months resulted in 20 homeless people from Kakaako getting into housing aimed specifically at families with young children.
“Going directly into shelters isn’t necessarily the best path for everyone,” Morishige said. “Homelessness is very complex. Homelessness doesn’t look the same from one person to another. Each circumstance is unique.”
Volunteers and outreach workers fanned out across Oahu last week trying to get an accurate “point-in-time count” of the island’s homeless population, which is part of simultaneous counts conducted around the country.
Last year’s point-in-time count identified 4,903 homeless people on Oahu compared with the 4,712 who were counted in 2014. Statewide a total of 7,620 homeless people were counted last year compared with 6,918 in 2014.
If the 2016 numbers that come out later this year show an increase, Morishige said, the higher count will be the result of better outreach by social workers who now emphasize getting to know every homeless person by name.
But despite housing 772 formerly homeless people last year — a number tallied by the city — Caldwell is bracing for the possibility that the number of people still homeless on Oahu could increase this year.
“I’m cautiously pessimistic the number will go up,” he said.