Twenty hours before Hawaii’s newest approach to reduce homelessness opened in Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, a chronically homeless man and his Chihuahua-mix dog who live on the edge of the park sought shelter from a Waipahu downpour and moved into one of three structures that had been inflated inside the park Friday.
Even though the homeless man arrived nearly a day early — at 1 a.m. Friday morning — “the heart of the program is to not say no,” said Honolulu Police Capt. Mike Lambert as he unpacked new equipment and set up Hawaii’s first “Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons” — or HONU — hours before it was scheduled to open at 9 p.m. Friday. The HONU structures will remain up for no longer than 90 days before they are broken down and relocated at the Old Stadium Park as currently planned.
“It’s already working,” Lambert said 12 hours before the official opening. “He’s flushed out of a place he’s not supposed to be in.”
The city bought 10 inflatable structures for the HONU project, and five are planned as the centerpiece of the first HONU in Waipahu.
The project is budgeted to cost $6 million from state funds marked for homeless efforts. The 10 structures cost $35,000 each for a total of $350,000. In addition there is a $650,000 cost for vehicles, a hygiene trailer and other equipment. Plus, there is $5 million for staffing, security, supplies and other around-the-clock costs for 36 months — or $140,000 monthly for two sites.
The HONU concept relies on a two-pronged strategy involving police, city and state officials, and nonprofit social service agencies.
Since Tuesday five plainclothes HPD Crime Reduction Unit officers and their supervisor have been telling homeless people around the park that they can either be cited for homeless-related violations such as violating park closure hours, or they can be driven in an unmarked police vehicle to the HONU, where they can get assistance for everything from getting government-issued identification to housing.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell previously said he would like individual homeless clients to remain on-site at the HONU no longer than three days, before they’re ready to move into a shelter or even into permanent housing.
This week the CRU officers gave the option to move into the HONU to about two dozen homeless people in the area, and the response was overwhelmingly positive — other than one person who was arrested for an outstanding warrant, said HPD Officer Garrett Maekawa.
“It was definitely a positive response from everyone out there,” Maekawa said.
Moments later Vanessa Williams, 63, came out of the nearby encampment she shares with her boyfriend, Ronald Heater, to speak to Lambert after living 22 years on the edge of Waipahu Cultural Garden Park.
Williams, who has a pit bull/whippet mix dog, told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser that she’s lived in homeless shelters before and undergone substance abuse treatment.
“I’ve done all the programs in the past,” Williams said.
After being warned by the CRU officers, Williams said she was willing to take a chance on finding help through the HONU.
“It’s about time,” she told the Star-Advertiser.
Among her needs, including housing, Williams wants to replace her government-issued identification, which was stolen.
Lambert told Williams that she has plenty of options, including being driven to the city’s Hale Mauliola transitional shelter on Sand Island, where she and her boyfriend can live with their dog, Lila, while receiving social service help for their issues.
The HONU project already has attracted the attention of West Coast police departments, Lambert said, but no one knows exactly what to expect.
In the early hours of the HONU concept, though, Evelyn Ahlo, executive director of the Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, was pleased by what she saw.
Ahlo told the Star- Advertiser in October that she had some initial concerns that the size of the HONU footprint would detract from the experience of visitors trying to learn about Hawaii’s plantation past.
But as the first HONU continued to be built out Friday, Ahlo said it was not nearly as large as she feared — and far enough away from the plantation sites not to affect tourists.
Ahlo also was pleased to hear that the chronically homeless man and his dog living on the edge of the park — whom she knows — came in out of the rain to make the first homeless contact with Hawaii’s first HONU.
“It’s going to be OK,” Ahlo said. “It’s going to be good.”