On Monday, following yet another sweep of the persistent Kakaako homeless encampments, a family of six decided to move into a shelter.
They are among 230 people who, since August, have left Kakaako for shelters or permanent housing following the combined efforts of law enforcement and social service outreach workers, the state’s homeless coordinator told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday.
“We’ve moved a significant number of people off the streets of Kakaako and into homes and that’s indisputable,” Scott Morishige said. “It’s a testament that this approach is working. The majority … were people who were homeless for a long period of time.”
Morishige, state Attorney General Doug Chin and Rachael Wong, director of the state Department of Human Services, spoke to the Star-Advertiser about the state’s wide-ranging approach to reduce the largest per capita homeless rate in the country through a mix of consistent social service outreach, systemic changes and ongoing sweeps by law enforcement officers.
Chin called the state’s approach a “balancing act.” In recent years, he said “even courts have weighed in with more guidance in terms of what they expect enforcement efforts to look like.”
That involves a “notice and outreach component, the ability to store people’s property and also the availability of shelter space — and shelter space that night. The theme we get from the court in their direction is with an understanding that we don’t want to criminalize homelessness. Rather, we want to be able to enforce laws but at the same time respect people’s various rights,” Chin said. “Then law enforcement is able to have better direction in terms of how they carry out enforcement efforts. … Frankly, I think all of that is helpful.”
An agreement to allow
Honolulu police and a special city cleanup crew from the Department of Facility Maintenance to begin clearing out homeless encampments on state land between Ala Moana Boulevard and the Kakaako shoreline beginning next month is still being worked out, Chin said.
The key issue is how to coordinate the upcoming city sweeps with current efforts underway by two private companies and state sheriff’s deputies on Hawaii Community Development Authority land inside the adjacent Kakaako Makai Gateway parks and nearby Kakaako Waterfront Park.
At one point in August, officials counted 293 people living in the encampments, which have come to symbolize the difficulties of trying to reduce the islands’ homeless population.
There are no major hurdles to reaching what’s known as a memorandum of understanding between the state and city, Chin said.
“It’s a matter of planning and logistics and having operations that are going to be effective and respectful,” Chin said. “Any enforcement effort is going to require a lot of moving parts, whether it’s the city’s DFM group, or whether it’s the state sheriff’s or HPD or the third-party providers. … We understand that this entire effort is so much more than moving people around or … citing people.”
Wong said Gov. David Ige’s approach to homelessness hinges on answering the question: “What is best for people?”
“It’s a values-based administration” that works to balance the “health and safety and welfare of the homeless and the larger community,” she said.
The administration hopes state legislators approve its request for additional money to hire more social service outreach staff and provide additional one-time financial assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless — or help get them off the street by offering rental deposits or utility payments, Wong said.
As for the long term, systemic changes are underway to help overhaul Hawaii’s Medicaid program to better serve homeless people, especially those with mental illness.
“We have to put in this infrastructure,” Wong said. “It’s getting to the nitty-gritty of transforming government.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in February that it had selected Hawaii to participate in its Medicaid Innovation Accelerator Program. The National Governors Association Learning Lab on Population Health is also helping Hawaii leverage Medicaid funds to help homeless families, Morishige said.
At the same time, a series of emergency proclamations that Ige began signing last year are helping to streamline efforts, Morishige said.
The proclamations allow the state to bypass normal procurement procedures. They helped pave the way last week for Aloha United Way to begin dispensing
$1 million worth of one-time funding to keep people from becoming homeless, or to help get them into housing, Morishige said.
The aid includes financial education and child care referrals for working families, among other services, he said.
Wong said government officials are constantly brainstorming ways to be more nimble and deploy resources.
AUW’s state contract also requires it to commission a study that looks at three specific homeless groups — unaccompanied youth, newly released prisoners and those discharged from hospitals. The results will help state officials “address those gaps on a larger scale,” Morishige said.
The focus on Hawaii’s homeless has also galvanized the community and generated offers of help, Morishige said.
“We’re really seeing the community coming together as partners,” he said.
Meanwhile, social service outreach workers and law enforcement officers from both the city and state continue their efforts every day.
While some people are clearly frustrated with the pace, the numbers of people who have moved out of Kakaako shows that the investment pays off, Morishige said. He added, “It takes time. It’s not something that happens overnight.”