KAHULUI >> Maui continues to see progress in reducing its homeless population — now down to 862 individuals, according to the latest count — but back-to-back violence at a new homeless encampment underscores lingering problems.
Lisa Lindsey-Kahaleauki, outreach team leader for the nonprofit Family Life Center, and outreach worker George Kaimiola drove through the parking lot of the recently shuttered Safeway store on Kamehameha Avenue the morning of Sept. 12, just a few hours after Manuel Nunes Jr. allegedly shot Douglas Balinbin in the back and head with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with bird shot following an argument.
Maui police described the two men as vagrants. Balinbin survived, and Nunes Jr. was arrested on multiple charges, including second-degree attempted murder. A woman with the same last name as Nunes was arrested on suspicion of hindering prosecution, tampering with physical evidence and ammunition charges.
The day before, on Sept. 11, police said, Jeremy Tackett, 41, drove through the same Safeway parking lot in a 1996 Acura, ran over a raised parking island, turned and collided into a 2003 Mazda van occupied by a woman, then crashed into an unoccupied 2006 Ford Escape and an empty 2019 Nissan.
Tackett died at the scene. A woman in the van he hit suffered non-life- threatening injuries.
Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall wrote in an email Wednesday to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “The former Kahului Safeway store closed on July 20. Safeway leases this location and we have security guards stationed at the site to patrol the parking lot 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We continue to work with the landlord and partner with the Maui Police Department to help preserve the peace and public safety of our community. In addition, we have cleaned up the parking lot and removed abandon(ed) cars in the lot.”
Kahului Councilwoman Tasha Kama said in a statement that “the area where these incidents took place has been plagued with homeless-related issues, and the situation appears to have gotten worse after the closing of Safeway. As a community we should come together to find a way to compassionately and effectively assist our homeless community to find the shelter and help they need.”
As Lindsey-Kahaleauki and Kaimiola arrived in a Jeep, a couple dozen homeless people — primarily single adults — occupied what appeared to be disabled vehicles in the parking lot, shuttled shopping carts or just sat on the pavement. The pair knew those living in the parking lot by name and said the homeless people there have ignored their repeated offers of help or won’t even bother to talk.
But they keep trying.
Family Life Center’s outreach workers are expected “to know every homeless person on the island,” Lindsey-Kahaleauki said. “Once we build that trust, we can engage them on a continuing basis.”
Permanent housing is main goal
It’s not an impossible goal on a tightknit island where more efforts to address homelessness are being added.
The position of homeless program coordinator for Maui County was created in February 2017 after Maui’s homeless population grew from 1,137 homeless people in 2015 to 1,145 in 2016.
The numbers then fell dramatically: down to 896 in 2017, 873 in 2018 and 862 in January’s annual nationwide homeless census, called the Point in Time Count.
Most of the efforts are focused around Kahului and Wailuku, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator. The challenge is to scale the efforts that are working across the broader island and the rest of Maui County, he said.
“The emphasis is on permanent housing as the main goal while also targeting people who are chronically homeless who may have mental health and substance abuse issues,” Morishige said.
Officials at Maui’s other major homeless organization, Ka Hale a ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers, declined to comment for this story. The agency provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, food, child care, training and other services. Its website says it sheltered 1,429 individuals in 2018 and provided housing to 353.
David Nakama, Maui County’s homeless program coordinator, said, “We want to nip it in the bud. We don’t want to become Oahu.”
Maui has had success getting motivated homeless people off the street, Nakama said.
“We hardly have any families out there now,” he said. “For the ones that want help, we’ve got the programs. It’s the ones that don’t want the help, who would rather be out drinking and drugging with their friends. That’s a different category of people.”
At Kanaha Beach Park near Kahului Airport, Lindsey- Kahaleauki and Kaimiola met Sandy Keanini, 64, and Larry Keanini Sr., 68, who live in a white Chevrolet van with their three dogs, Kekai, MissMiss and Handsome.
Asked how long they’ve been living in the van, Sandy Keanini said, “Too long.”
Lindsey-Kahaleauki and Kaimiola later met Ele Meyers, 55, and her boyfriend, Patrick Keene, 49, in another section of the park. The couple have been sleeping in their 1998 Toyota Camry with their pit bull, Mauka, in the Safeway parking lot even though “it’s unsafe,” because they’re not allowed in county parks overnight, Keene said.
Maui Rescue Mission tows its shower trailer to Kanaha twice a week to offer showers and laundry service to about a dozen people, said Abel Garcia, director of outreach and operations.
It’s greatly appreciated, Meyers said.
“A hot shower is like, wow!” she said. “It’s a great service.”
Partnership with police
A new partnership between Mental Health Kokua and Maui police is already getting help for a handful of chronically homeless people with sometimes long police records. Their pilot project called LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, started in May. A similar program was launched on Oahu in 2018.
Maui’s LEAD program relies on a single outreach worker, Lori Naluai, and two Maui police sergeants, Jan Pontanilla and Joy Medeiros. They’ve already seen early success. Four chronically homeless adults — three women and a man — have since moved off the street and into homeless shelters, where they receive help that could include mental illness and substance abuse treatment. Two more chronically homeless people are on the cusp of agreeing to join them, Pontanilla said.
“We try to find these individuals who are constantly in the judicial system,” she said. “But it’s all voluntary.”
The four homeless people who have agreed to join the 30-day LEAD program have had multiple “involvements” with Maui police and multiple arrests. One woman alone has had 250 police “involvements” and 43 arrests between 2010 and this year, none of them felonies, Pontanilla said.
She had seen the woman repeatedly when Pontanilla worked at the Police Department’s receiving desk.
“What surprised me was that she gave us a chance,” Pontanilla said. “I would call her a success story. We look at it as going from 250 involvements to zero, and now she’s off the street. So police involvement has stopped. That’s a drastic turnaround.”
Before launching LEAD, Maui police had few options for homeless people who had committed no crimes.
“It was basically, we have to move this person along,” Pontanilla said.
Nakama, Maui’s homeless program coordinator, said police, outreach workers and state and county officials are now focused on the ultimate goal of getting Maui’s homeless into permanent housing.
“We’re all on the same page now,” he said.
But just like Oahu, Maui faces shortages of shelter beds, available drug treatment spots and, especially, landlords willing to rent units to so-called Housing First tenants, who come with support from outreach and social service workers.
Housing First is a nationwide program endorsed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and embraced by Gov. David Ige for state homeless initiatives, as well as by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
On Maui various programs are coming together to do “great work, actually,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Hawaii island emergency room physician who has made finding solutions for homelessness one of his top priorities. Green flew to each neighbor island in May and reviewed their efforts.
“But even while doing great work, everyone shared that there’s a shortage of (services and resources),” he said. “(On Maui) they need more outreach workers directly in the trenches and out into the streets. They’re doing very good work with the agencies they’ve got there, but they’re a far cry from serving all of the chronically homeless.”
He said he understands the persistence it can take to get a homeless person to accept help. On Maui he met a former nurse in her early 40s who was addicted to methamphetamine and living in a tent. Green said he was “willing to fly her on my own dime to Oahu,” but the woman finally agreed to seek drug treatment on Maui after three visits by outreach workers.
“It took three cracks before she got into rehab, which shows that it can take multiple touches before we eventually get them off the street,” Green said. “We encounter these kinds of cases all day long on Oahu, but they are spiking on the neighbor islands as well.”
Green said he would like to replicate Oahu’s two Joint Outreach Centers on the neighbor islands to provide medical care and a portal to housing.
Landlords need convincing
At the same time, Maude Cumming, executive director of Family Life Center, is trying to persuade more Maui landlords to rent to homeless people. Housing First landlords are guaranteed rent and can call outreach workers for any problems.
“We had to change our mindsets to focus on housing, housing, housing,” Cumming said. “That focus on housing has made the change for us.”
But, just like on Oahu, the transition from living on the street to a home can be difficult.
“Most of the people we have in permanent supportive housing were resistant at first,” Cumming said. “And for the first month or so, almost all of them go back and sleep outside.”
Tracy Clare Kalama has had mixed results renting Housing First units to homeless people — as both a landlord and property manager. Six months ago she had to evict two women in their 20s who kept breaking house rules by smoking and inviting friends over for parties.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Kalama said. “At first they were so grateful. But they make friends with all of these people on the street, and one friend led to two friends and so on. They were allowed to go to a shelter, but they never did. They went back to the streets.”
Kalama said there also have been many success stories, too, such as three homeless people who lived in separate Housing First units for years, without problems, before they died. And a family with a young child lived in a unit for four years without problems until they received a Section 8 voucher for low-income tenants.
For property owners, Kalama ensures the rent will be paid and problems addressed.
“Your home is being watched,” she tells them.
If none of that works, Kalama emphasizes that Housing First units are helping “local families that are struggling. If we’re not going to help each other out, who are we?”