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Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi to eliminate ‘compassionate disruption’ homeless approach

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi.

  • JAMM AQUINO / OCT. 8
                                Honolulu Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi wants to eliminate the city’s current “compassionate disruption” philosophy to address homelessness. Various items are seen on the sidewalk near a homeless camp along Nimitz Highway in Iwilei.

    JAMM AQUINO / OCT. 8

    Honolulu Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi wants to eliminate the city’s current “compassionate disruption” philosophy to address homelessness. Various items are seen on the sidewalk near a homeless camp along Nimitz Highway in Iwilei.

Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi wants to eliminate the city’s current “compassionate disruption” philosophy to address homelessness on Oahu, including the frequent sweeps of homeless camps.

Blangiardi said in his “Roadmap to Recovery” that he will “eliminate the city’s use of so-called compassionate disruption, especially during COVID-19. This approach merely moves homeless individuals from park to park and street to street.”

Under Mayor Kirk Caldwell, compassionate disruption has meant enforcing park closure laws, including homeless people sleeping in tents, and constantly sweeping areas of the island. Caldwell regularly enforced the city’s ban on sitting and lying in business districts and its sidewalk nuisance laws.

The city deploys two special cleanup crews to remove tons of homeless items every week and had been in the process of hiring a third crew.

The compassionate portion of Caldwell’s approach meant repeatedly offering homeless people — especially the well-known chronically homeless — shelter beds along with assistance from social workers and health care workers to deal with underlying issues.

The city’s ongoing homeless sweeps — Caldwell calls them “enforcement actions” — are based on complaints and have represented the one consistent form of relief for Oahu businesses that often open their doors to find urine, feces, needles and the homeless themselves.

Blangiardi declined a request from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to fill out details about his ideas on homelessness outlined in his Roadmap.

In the policy paper, Blan-giardi wrote, “This may be the single issue that people raise most with me.” In addition to eliminating Caldwell’s compassionate disruption approach, Blangiardi said he would:

>> “Convene a City, State, and non-profit stakeholders meeting to develop a comprehensive, data-intensive approach to coordinated outreach services, expanded medical care, and additional shelter/housing options for O‘ahu’s homeless population.

>> “Prioritize additional housing and treatment options for the homeless, including the service-resistant community on the streets with addiction and/or mental health issues.

>> “Support programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Assisted Community Treatment (ACT). …

>> “Prepare for increased homelessness after expiration of CARES Act funds and federal programs which expire December 30, 2020.”

Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, described Blangiardi’s homeless plan as “things that the state and our homeless providers are already working on.”

Morishige added Blan-giardi could be facing a rapidly growing homeless problem when he takes office early next year.

With America’s worst economy and highest rate of unemployment, homelessness is expected to surge across all islands — especially after federal COVID-19 relief funds are scheduled to disappear at the end of the year.

“It’s very likely we are going to see an increase in need and more people falling into homelessness because of COVID-19 and the impact on the economy,” Morishige said. “More than ever before, it’s going to be critical for everyone to come together and support one another. We look forward to working with the administration.”

Hawaii started 2020 by shedding its ignoble distinction of having America’s highest per capita rate of homelessness. New York now has the country’s worst homeless problem when measured per capita.

In the wake of a subsequent economic and housing crisis in Hawaii, it will be critical for city and state officials to work together with social service agencies, nonprofit groups, outreach workers and others to deal with the chronically homeless, while newly homeless families are likely to need quick assistance to regain permanent housing.

Unlike the city, the state has no dedicated cleanup crew to conduct sweeps on state land. So state officials hired a contractor to clear 190 tons of items — including bicycle parts, welding equipment, tools, generators and cooking utensils — over three days ending on Friday to break down 42 illegal campsites at the Sand Island State Recreation Area in response to complaints.

Former City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson, who resigned in October, praised Blangiardi for putting his thoughts on homelessness in writing.

“It’s huge that he’s come up with a plan,” Anderson said. “I can’t stress this enough. You can certainly argue that it’s vague, but he specifically says who he wants to engage with. I don’t know how it would be possible for Mayor-elect Blangiardi to have a more detailed plan because he doesn’t have direct experience dealing with this issue. But now it’s on his desk — or it’s going to be.”

Blangiardi will inherit a potentially powerful new tool to address homelessness in the Iwilei-Nimitz Highway area when the city’s four-story Punawai Rest Stop behind the state’s largest homeless shelter is expected to fully open in January on Kuwili Street.

The first-floor hygiene center has been operating for two years and already has seen 2,500 unique homeless clients in each year. They have taken over 100,000 showers and gotten access to toilets, laundry, health checks for their pets, mail and case management.

In the early weeks of Blangiardi’s new administration, the building is expected to open its upper floors to also provide a health clinic and even 21 studio apartments of permanent housing, also with case management.

Outgoing Councilman Joey Manahan has embraced the city’s attempts to reduce homelessness in and around his district, including Punawai Rest Stop; the Hale Mauliola navigation center on Sand Island, which became the island’s first shelter to accept pets, along with homeless single adults and couples who live in converted shipping containers; and businessman Duane Kurisu’s community of permanent housing made out of prefabricated homes for working, formerly homeless families along the H-1 freeway called Kahauiki Village. Kahauiki Village’s collaboration of state, county and private business interests to create permanent homes for homeless families on Oahu has attracted attention from mainland officials struggling with their own homeless problems.

“The next administration has to look at the next steps beyond the foundation that was already made,” Manahan said. “Perhaps it’s time to look at things like tiny homes to get people off the street to manage those illegal encampments. It comes down to being able to provide more alternatives.”

Asked what it means that Blangiardi wants to abandon compassionate disruption, Manahan said Blangiardi likely “would be a little more careful about enforcing the sit-lie ordinances or stored- property or sidewalk nuisances. That’s how I interpret it. He would look at other alternatives to those types of solutions. I think that’s good.”

Connie Mitchell, who runs the Institute for Human Serv-ices, which provides case management for several of the city’s homeless projects, wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser, “In our past experience with Blangiardi, he has proven himself to be a great listener and great at execution of a plan. We welcome his value of mutual accountability and applying the best expertise available to the task. I love that he wants to focus on the most chronically homeless people who have little capacity to help themselves.”

State Rep. John Mizuno (D, Kamehameha Heights-Kalihi Valley) said Blangiardi “is not afraid to say, ‘Maybe I didn’t work in the homelessness scene; however, I’m willing to talk to the experts.’ … We’ve seen homelessness for dec-ades, and the state, counties and the nonprofits talk a good job, but they just haven’t done a good job. He has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to homelessness. I’m extremely optimistic.”

Asked how much of a honeymoon period Blangiardi will have before showing clear results, Mizuno said that when it comes to homelessness, “people are never patient. People in Hawaii are very forgiving and usually understanding, but they want results.”

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