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U.S. mayors hear conflicting versions of progress in homelessness on Oahu

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    Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his fellow mayors from across the country enjoyed watching keiki dancers from Halau Hula Olana who performed Friday at the beginning of the Mayors Climate Protection Awards Luncheon at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.

Two officials with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness are in town to share a message with more than 220 mayors from across the United States that progress can be made, even in high-cost housing markets like Hawaii.

“The biggest challenge faced here on Oahu is, How do you create more housing opportunities that people can afford?” said Matthew Doherty, USICH executive director. “How do we address housing affordability?”

It’s the same issue facing cities on the West Coast, Doherty said.

But even as more homeless people are getting housed, communities are documenting more people entering into homelessness, he said. In Los Angeles, for instance, “the pace of people entering homeless was more than they could keep up with.”

The result is that across the country, “in lots and lots and lots of communities, homelessness is the No. 1 issue,” Doherty said. “The general public is connecting homelessness to the larger affordability issue. You can’t solve one without addressing the other.”

Doherty is being joined at the mayors conference by Katy Miller, the Seattle-based USICH regional coordinator, who has said that Hawaii is addressing homelessness on several positive fronts that should be expanded to be even more effective.

For instance, Miller called the partnerships between Honolulu police, sheriff’s deputies and social workers “exciting.”

“The fact that the police have a role about engagement is a tool they didn’t have in their toolkit,” she said.

As Doherty and Miller spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty issued an open letter to the U.S. Conference of Mayors attendees that blasted Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” approach to dealing with the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the nation.

“As you see our city, the streets will likely be pristine, and the tents, tarps, and houseless people will likely be nowhere in sight,” the letter reads. “The conclusion the city wants you to draw from your visit is that its ‘war on homelessness’ — grounded in its strategy of ‘compassionate disruption’ — is working.

“But the truth is that the city’s ‘war’ is a disaster with mounting casualties,” according to the letter. “These casualties are our fellow island residents, who are targeted by the city simply because they do not currently have a solid roof over their heads. The only thing needing ‘disruption’ is the city’s failing model of using the police, arrests and prosecution to coerce houseless people to magically find housing that simply does not exist.”

In an email to the Star- Advertiser, Caldwell said he welcomed constructive criticism from the ACLU and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty but that they neglected to mention “any of the successes Honolulu has implemented under my administration.”

He said these include the Chinatown hygiene center on Pauahi Street; the Kuwili Street hygiene center, H4 respite care center and Housing First facility in Iwilei; the Kahauiki Village initiative in partnership with the state and private sector; numerous buildings purchased by the city to house the homeless population under the city’s Housing First model; and a landlord initiative to find rental units for the homeless using vouchers.

“We also enforce the laws of the city for all of our citizens. Just because you are homeless does not mean you get a pass on following the law or sleeping on our sidewalks and parks,” Caldwell said. “We know that there are shelter spaces available on any given night that are not filled.”

Caldwell and Gov. David Ige have embraced the Housing First philosophy, which places the most chronically homeless people into market-rate rental units and ensures payments to landlords while providing social service assistance that could include substance abuse and mental health assistance.

“All the evidence supports that Housing First works,” Doherty said.

He called Housing First an “evidence-based, proven model for ending homelessness. There’s no community making progress that is not using Housing First practices.”

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