State Rep. Tom Brower’s beating a year ago in the heart of a dangerous, entrenched Kakaako homeless encampment forced Oahu to confront the reality of too many people with no place to call home.
Since that day — June 29 — there’s more awareness of the many ways that people end up homeless in the islands. Leaders from the highest levels of government on down have learned that solutions will not come quickly, easily or cheap.
Results of the annual homeless count are scheduled for release on Wednesday as part of a nationwide snapshot of the homeless population in each community. Then in the fall, federal officials will crunch the numbers from around the country and determine whether Hawaii retains the ignoble distinction of having the highest per capita rate of homelessness in America.
The last so-called Point in Time Count showed that in January 2015 Hawaii had its biggest, statewide homeless population in five years: 7,620 people, up from 6,918 the year before.
On Oahu, the homeless count was 4,903, an increase from the 4,712 found a year earlier.
State Department of Education data for the school year that just ended showed island schools enrolled 3,576 homeless students, up from 3,526 the year before.
No matter the results of the latest head count, the attack on Brower changed the way people view the homeless and generated a new sense of urgency to get them off the streets, whether out of compassion or disgust.
Along the way, it inspired more churches, landlords, construction companies, architects, engineers, nonprofit groups and everyday people to think of ways they could use their talents — or money or donations — to somehow make a difference.
“Definitely a lot more people from the community are stepping forward,” said Scott Morishige, the state’s chief coordinator of homeless initiatives. “There is certainly more awareness of the issue and, in general, more people are willing to be part of the solution.”
Businesses, especially Waikiki’s tourism industry, “want to take action,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services. “A lot of the business sector is stepping forward, which is very exciting. It’s heartening so much goodwill has come forward.”
IHS runs Hawaii’s largest homeless shelters in Iwilei, as well as the city’s new Hale Mauliola community for formerly homeless people that opened in November on Sand Island. IHS is also in the final year of its two-year contract with the city to find so-called fair-market “Housing First” rental units that come with rent guarantees for landlords, a case worker to call for problems and social service help for tenants who may have mental illness or problems with alcohol and drug abuse.
From Nov. 1, 2014, through Oct. 31, IHS found Housing First rental units for 176 individuals in 115 households. IHS is now tasked with finding Housing First units for another 115 Oahu households by November, when the city’s next two-year Housing First contract will be taken over by the U.S. Vets organization on Oahu.
Persuading more landlords and property managers to take a chance on renting to people off the street — especially in a red-hot housing market — will be critical to reducing homelessness across the islands, Morishige said.
“We can’t build our way out of this situation,” he said. “It’s really important to have more landlords step up to the table and be willing to take in individuals either from a shelter or off the street. Due to the stigma, we’re not always able to pair up the units with people in need.”
While Oahu’s struggle with its homeless population draws the most attention, the neighbor islands have their own homeless issues.
Last week, Morishige attended a landlord summit on Maui that was modeled after similar ones on Oahu, including one in which Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell urged Honolulu landlords and property managers to rent to a homeless person or family.
On Maui, Morishige was encouraged that more than 80 people showed up.
“Every time I go to one of these events it really is heartwarming to see people who have a legitimate desire to help and are stepping forward,” Morishige said. “Some of them admittedly were hesitant. But when they do take someone in, they realize the tenant is no different than any other tenant. They also have someone on call 24/7 (to address problems). Not every single landlord is aware of that.”
Misconceptions about homelessness linger, such as the belief that Hawaii’s homeless population is the result of too many malihini, or newcomers, from the mainland — and especially from Micronesia — who are arriving without a permanent place to live.
Instead, data collected by outreach workers show that most are homegrown neighbors, friends and family suffering from the ills that plague the rest of society, including domestic violence and other abuse; mental illness; drug and alcohol addiction; and, all too often, a simple inability to keep up with Hawaii’s high cost of living.
“Homelessness is the issue of our time,” Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week at the intersection of Ohe and Olomehani streets, where he had been photographing the encampment when the assault began.
A mob of as many as 10 people chased the state legislator down Olomehani Street to a row of bushes at the doorstep to the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, where Brower fell as he was pummeled in front of children and their parents.
A cut near his right eye, bruised ribs and scrapes on his leg and left hand ended up sending him to the Queen’s Medical Center in an ambulance.
The beating “helped propel people into action,” Brower said. “Everyone would agree with that.”
Since last summer the population of the Kakaako encampment has dropped to a fifth of its former size, and reports of simple assault and property damage have dipped, according to the latest Honolulu police data for the first three months of 2016.
The numbers for HPD’s Beat 168, which includes the encampment, are small. Simple assaults went from 10 reports in the first quarter of 2015 to seven for the same period this year. Reports of property damage fell from 13 in the first quarter of 2015 to nine.
However, nuisance complaints jumped from 37 in the first three months of 2015 to 45 for the same period this year. Likewise, theft cases increased from 18 in the first quarter of 2015 to 29 for the first quarter of 2016, according to HPD.
Paramedics and emergency medical technicians are also responding to more 911 calls to the area, despite the drop in the homeless population.
From June 2015 to the start of this month, paramedics and EMTs answered 253 911 calls — compared to 199 for the same period a year before, according to the city Department of Emergency Services.
Sweeps continue in the effort to clear the encampments that linger around Kakaako Waterfront Park, the Children’s Discovery Center and the University of Hawaii medical school and Cancer Center.
But Jay Dee, 47, and others like him keep returning to a newly cleaned area.
“I prefer being on the street,” said Dee, who surfs at nearby Point Panic.
In just the last two years, Dee estimated that he’s been swept out of Kakaako and nearby areas “well over 100 times.”
He and others believe the ongoing sweeps are helping to harden some homeless people who are growing weary of having to constantly pack up and move. “They’re strong-arming you into shelters,” Dee said. “They’re basically saying, ‘Move into a shelter or pack up tonight — again.’ All those sweeps — people are tired of it, so they left.”
But Dee prefers the ability to surf nearby and the relative freedom of being in Kakaako, even if it means constantly packing up and moving between city, state and private property to avoid citations and the possibility of losing his belongings.
“We’ve got it down to a science,” Dee said.
But Alika Brackeen, 30, gave up and moved into Kakaako’s Next Step shelter two months ago after two years in the encampment.
“You get tired of moving,” Brackeen said. “No mo’ solutions than pushing people around. Something’s gotta be done.”
Today a persistent population of roughly 50 to 60 people continues to sleep in the area every night.
“The city conducted an intensive enforcement effort in Kakaako Makai in September and October last year that resulted in the successful removal of entrenched encampments on sidewalks,” city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke wrote in an email. “Since that time, the city’s enforcement crews have successfully kept the sidewalks within the city’s jurisdiction in Kakaako Makai free from stored property obstructions by relentlessly returning an average of every other day, while continuing to conduct their roving patrols across the rest of Oahu.”
Those who remain in state-owned parks around Kakaako tend to be veterans of the street.
“It does appear there are fewer families and more single adults and couples,” Morishige said. “A lot of these individuals lack a regular source of income, or don’t have picture ID that you need to secure employment or obtain housing. Some of them have been there a very long time.”
The current population pales in comparison to the 293 people who were counted in August living in wood-reinforced tarps and tents — sometimes outfitted with portable generators and flat screen televisions — that covered almost every inch of city-owned sidewalks in the area.
Hundreds of homeless people all across Oahu have been encouraged to get off the street and move into shelters — or into Housing First rental units.
Just from Kakaako, Morishige said, “since August, we’ve transitioned over 260 people into shelters or permanent housing. The population a year ago was almost 300 individuals. Now today there’s 50 to 60 at any given time. That’s significant progress.”
Even so, more people continue to enter the homeless pipeline.
For instance, numbers released last month showed that 747 homeless military veterans on Oahu had found housing since January 2015, but an average of 24 veterans were becoming homeless each month.
Ige had asked the Legislature to earmark $9 million in the state budget to address homelessness head on. Faced with the scope of the problem, lawmakers instead provided $12 million.
Before the start of the legislative session, Ige began signing a series of emergency proclamations that make it easier for homeless people to get financial assistance from a $4.7 million fund or to get them into permanent housing.
Since Aloha United Way began dispersing the state funds in mid-April, 55 homeless households have received money, along with 172 households that were at risk of becoming homeless without financial assistance, AUW reported on its website. AUW plans to provide weekly updates of the number of people helped by the state money every Friday afternoon on its website, auw.org.
The overwhelming majority of people that have gotten financial help through AUW — 70 percent — are on Oahu.
Caldwell said last week that Ige’s proclamations also will get the city’s new so-called Hassinger Project in Makiki renovated and opened faster than usual to provide housing for as many as 75 homeless and low-income residents, tentatively beginning some time in February.
The proclamations will enable the city to quickly open Hawaii’s first-of-its-kind, all-in-one “hygiene center” on Kuwili Street in Iwilei. The ground floor of the four-story building will provide showers, bathrooms and laundry machines; social service workers will be located on the second floor; and the top two floors will have 35 studio apartments, each with their own bathrooms and small kitchens.
Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the project is aimed at Honolulu’s “hard core,” chronically homeless, blamed by Iwilei businesses for an increase in vandalism and daily deposits of feces on their doorsteps.
The 43,000-square-foot project will be the bigger brother of the city’s only other hygiene center — on North Pauahi Street in Chinatown. The individual men’s and women’s 8-by- 12-foot rooms consist of a single shower, toilet and sink and have been used by an average of 60 to 70 people per day since the Chinatown hygiene center opened in March 2015.
The first major initiative in the wake of the assault on Brower was the city’s Hale Mauliola, a Sand Island shelter with units made from refurbished shipping containers. The project allows pets, removing an obstacle for many homeless people who refuse to abandon their animals in order to move into a shelter.
Hale Mauliola residents also receive social service help, including job placement assistance.
As of last week, 168 clients had entered Hale Mauliola since November. Sixty of them have since transitioned into permanent housing, said Kimo Carvalho, a spokesman for IHS, which runs the project for the city.
Another 20 left on their own and 16 were asked to leave because of “serious behavioral violations,” Carvalho said.
The city has scheduled a blessing for Hale Mauliola Monday morning.
“Our consistent daily enforcement across Oahu, our unprecedented efforts to create housing and hygiene centers, and our focus on homeless veterans have made a clear impact,” Caldwell said in an email. “Going forward, we will continue making progress by creating housing across the island in areas where homeless people live, partnering with service providers like IHS and U.S. Vets for Housing First, and creating innovative solutions like the Hale Mauliola Navigation Center. We will not relent in our daily, repeated enforcement and cleanup efforts that remove tons of debris from the streets of Oahu every week.”
Hale Mauliola, along with the Hassinger Project and hygiene centers, represent the other side of Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” strategy.
“We do need to focus on public safety,” Morishige said. “But if you’re only focusing on the enforcement piece and someone decides to make a change but the support isn’t there, they’re not going to be successful. If we have the resources on hand, it’s more likely the change will stick.”
Brower insists he has no hard feelings for the people who beat him. A teenage boy whom Brower said instigated the attack has been charged with assault.
Brower shares the belief that reducing Hawaii’s homeless population will depend on a combination of enforcement and resources to help the homeless.
“Like many people, I’m just a few paychecks from homelessness myself,” Brower said. “But we have to uphold the law. Government needs to keep addressing the people who are bending the laws in their favor and creating more problems such as crime, drug use, sanitary issues.”
Brower worries that the community’s collective shock at what happened to him a year ago has given way to a new apathy.
“I hope that anything that happened to me in Kakaako actually helps,” Brower said. “I think we’re on the right track, but the train is running too slowly. In some ways people have become numb. Homelessness seems to be more accepted and I don’t think that’s going to be good in the long run. It’s going to change our lifestyle.”