State and county officials, social service agencies and law enforcement are working together to address the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country, but more needs to be done, according to the regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Katy Miller, who is based in Seattle, has been documenting Hawaii’s progress on homelessness ever since she visited a lawless homeless encampment that sprang up in Kakaako in the summer of 2015. At the time it was one of the biggest in the country.
Back then, Miller said, government officials did not want to talk about homeless programs such as Housing First, which place the most chronically homeless people into market-rate housing and get help for problems that could include substance abuse and mental health.
“I was told that just couldn’t be done, moving people straight into permanent housing,” Miller said.
Now the language of homeless programs has changed in the islands, and officials are working together — unlike bigger cities on the mainland, Miller said.
“I am seeing more people working together than ever before,” she said. “It is better than other cities in the country.”
In 2015, just after the city imposed its first sit-lie ban in Waikiki, which led to the Kakaako encampment, Miller said she watched Honolulu police officers “just move people along. That was the tool they had at the time.”
During her latest visit last week, Miller saw police working with social workers in Chinatown “trying to solve the problem. They’re thinking outside of the box. I don’t see that in all cities.”
To underscore her point, Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, had just finished arranging shelter space for a homeless couple who wandered into the state Capitol on Tuesday morning.
Sheriff’s deputies knew to contact Morishige rather than tell the couple to leave the Capitol.
“You all are doing the right stuff,” Miller told a gathering of state and city and social service officials, including Morishige, at the Capitol. “You’ve got to keep going and expand it and take it to scale.”
Miller toured businessman Duane Kurisu’s Kahauiki Village next to Nimitz Highway, as well as the city’s four-story Kuwili Street project, which is under development in Iwilei.
“There’s building happening, great projects,” Miller said. “The right work is going on, but not enough to keep up with the need. More, more, more. You need more Kahauiki Villages, more Kuwili Streets.”
She had no criticism of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s hiring of private security guards to crack down on illegal homeless activity in nine city parks because it goes hand in hand with efforts to get homeless people into shelters and services.
Once encampments are cleared, Miller said, “you have to do the other stuff. You can’t just move people around. It’s the old whack-a-mole theory.”
While Hawaii officials are taking the right approach, Miller said the biggest challenge is building permanent homes that would be “deeply affordable for people exiting homelessness.”
“The housing crisis is not going to get better unless it’s dealt with head-on,” Miller said.