The Institute for Human Services has kicked off a program to reduce the chronically homeless population in Waikiki, the epicenter of the state’s tourism economy.
Called Waikiki SMART, the new endeavor was made possible by $100,000 in seed funding donated by the Hawai‘i Lodging &Tourism Association and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the administrators of a state matching-funds program to address homelessness.
So far, HLTA and HTA have distributed 110 grants for homeless programs. IHS raised $100,000 in private funds, mostly from Waikiki hotels, to apply for the largest state grant awarded by the tourism agencies to a single agency.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Lodging and Tourism Association, said the idea for the funding came out of a Visitor Public Safety Conference held the past two years in Waikiki. In March, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard told some 200 conference attendees that she knew their “No. 1 issue, without even asking, is homelessness” and pledged to work with Waikiki stakeholders to make the state’s top tourism district “uncomfortable” for homeless people.
“IHS is a worthy recipient. Money that we are giving today will just launch it. I want to be clear that we’ll have to come back to our very charitable donors again,” Hannemann said Monday during a news conference to announce Waikiki SMART, which stands for System Mediated Access to Rehabilitation and Treatment.
The grant allows IHS to launch the first year of an evening drop-in service center at St. Augustine’s Church. Each Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., the center will provide meals, hot showers and social services to homeless individuals. IHS also intends to use the money to provide transportation for homeless individuals from Waikiki to IHS service centers and to conduct medical diversion services. IHS also plans to send nighttime outreach workers into Waikiki three or more times weekly.
IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell said she hopes to implement three more phases of Waikiki SMART, maybe even providing a place for substance abusers to “dry out.”
“We’ll work with the community to find more solutions,” Mitchell said.
Kimo Carvalho, IHS community relations director, said the new program will augment IHS’ previous Waikiki efforts. From November 2014 to November 2018, Carvalho said, IHS served clients in Waikiki 2,133 times. IHS assisted in moving some 479 of Waikiki’s homeless people off the streets and into shelters and permanent housing programs, Carvalho said. IHS also relocated 405 of Waikiki’s homeless people out of state and into permanent housing options, he said.
“We’ve counted about 80 chronically homeless individuals that could use more assertive intervention,” Carvalho said. “Our goal is to help get them off the street.”
Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley said homelessness has plagued Waikiki for decades but traditionally ebbs and flows.
“If people aren’t screaming about it, it’s only because they have gotten numb,” Finley said. “It’s so bad at my condominium that people actually have to watch where they step because homeless people are doing their business by the cars.”
Finley said he’s hopeful that a more concentrated effort to address Waikiki homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, will improve the quality of life for residents and the tourism experience.
Jessica Lani Rich, president and CEO of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, said the nonprofit, which helps visitors in distress, responded Friday to an incident where a visitor from Texas was beaten up on Kalakaua Avenue by a homeless man.
“It was a totally random and unprovoked incident,” Rich said.
Waikiki resident Stephany Sofos said she’s optimistic about the new program but fears that it won’t be enough to bring relief to residents who are dealing with rising crime along with nuisances.
“The people that live along the Ala Wai Canal every night have to put up with people drinking and screaming and having public sex,” Sofos said.“In my area, along the Gold Coast, we’ve had six incidents in the last 10 days where we’ve caught homeless trying to break into houses.”
Sofos said there’s been a homeless camp near the lighthouse side of the Diamond Head State Monument for over three years.
“It smells like a toilet. I just shake my head because it’s like allowing homeless people to occupy Mount Rushmore,” she said.