Former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s advice to his successor on handling Oahu’s chronic homeless problem was to continue the “compassionate disruption” policy — the centerpieces of which are the “sit-lie” and “stored property” enforcement laws.
Caldwell’s policies were intended to help force people who live on the streets, sidewalks and in city parks into shelters, with sweeps of homeless encampments and enforcement actions made easier for police and city officials. Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser before leaving office that his detractors tend to forget the “compassionate” part of the compassionate-disruption policy and that under his administration the Hale Mauliola Navigation Center at Sand Island, the Kahauiki Village partnership with the state and business leaders, the Punawai Rest Stop in Iwilei and the Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons initiative all began. The city’s Housing First initiative has provided vouchers for 625 families and individuals, including homeless veterans.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s point person on the intractable homeless problem is Office of Housing Director Anton Krucky, whose first inclination is an approach that moves away from routine police involvement.
“A person may call the city today, and they may want to report an incident, but they don’t want to report it as a crime. They just want to say, ‘Hey, this person’s here, and it looks like they need some help,’” Krucky said.
“Right now, the only reaction we have is HPD.”
He wants to change that.
The idea is, what if instead of calling the police to address a homelessness issue, people had another number they could call that would send outreach services instead?
It is based on a program in Denver called Support Team Assistance Response. It sends a paramedic and a mental health professional to respond to calls related to non-violent problems such as trespassing, indecent exposure and welfare checks.
During the Denver program’s pilot period of six months, it responded to 748 calls, and none required the assistance of the Denver Police Department, according to the STAR Program Evaluation.
Specifics about how exactly the program would work on Oahu have not been settled yet, but that’s on purpose.
“What I really want to analyze is, how do we take this mosaic of services out there, including how the state interfaces with the city, and create a collaboration of events where these are all connected,” he said.
Krucky plans to convene a group of people who know the most about homelessness on Oahu, from outreach service providers to community members and at least one person who is actually homeless.
“If you want to understand what’s going on with someone, ask someone who’s done it,” he said.
“I think that one is putting something together like this in a thoughtful manner, understanding all the pieces we have to do so that when we do deploy it, we know what we’re doing.”
He anticipates that it would take about two to three months for the group to solidify a plan and would then have to find funding for it, as it is not included in this year’s budget. Although he said he has ideas of how to fund at least a pilot program.
A growing problem
Although there was no Point in Time Count of the homeless population in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii Health Harm Reduction Center Executive Director Heather Lusk suspects there may have been an increase in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals.
“Because of physical distancing, our congregate shelters have less capacity,” she said.
“People that might have normally been at a shelter, they have a lot less room because they had to separate the beds and do all of the social distancing.”
Lusk also heard anecdotally from HPD officers, the neighborhood board and businesses that there may have been an increase in the number of unsheltered people specifically in Waikiki.
She was told by HPD officers that one of the reasons for this was because Waikiki is one of the only areas where homeless people could go to panhandle and interface with the public as tourists returned.
“Some of the homeless folks that they met are from other parts of the island coming into Waikiki because that’s where some people were coming back to to try to get some extra food handed out or some panhandling,” she said.
Crime in Waikiki has declined over the past year as the pandemic decreased visitor arrivals and residential traffic, according to Rick Egged, Waikiki Improvement Association president.
Still, Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley said the lack of visitors “has exposed the underlying problem of ‘homeless panhandling’ and property damage in Waikiki.”
“I’ve gotten complaints from various condominium associations that unsheltered homeless individuals have been trespassing in their parking lots, where they sleep and use the bathroom,” Finley said. “Recently, we found a naked man in my condominium’s parking lot.”
Finley said he was prompted to send a letter seeking relief to Honolulu City Council Chairman Tommy Waters, who represents Waikiki, after a fellow Waikiki Neighborhood Board member’s husband was threatened.
“He came out of a retail store and a homeless man threatened him with a broom handle,” he said. “HPD was called. They recognized the man as a repeat offender, but with the current prosecutor policy and lack of jail/prison space, they couldn’t take any real action except to chase him away.”
Finley said the district needs greater support in dealing with repeat offenders and getting Waikiki’s unsheltered homeless individuals into housing.
He said he hopes HPD might consider Waikiki as a site for one of its mobile homeless outreach programs.
“I do know the HPD actions at the Old Stadium Park were quite effective,” Finley said. “I’m not saying that we should get homeless individuals off the street because I don’t like looking at them — it’s because I want to see them move into housing and jobs. Addressing the needs of homeless people also would free HPD up to deal with more ‘hardcore’ crimes.”
Krucky’s method of talking to the different parties who provide the on-the-ground services for homeless individuals has given many outreach program leaders hope for what they say is the first time in several years.
“They’re meeting with a lot of different people to ask and find out what’s going on, which is huge,” Lusk said.
“I mean, how many times have we had somebody come into whatever community and be like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing now?’ And so far, it seems that they’re asking the right questions and learning. And they’re then going to partner to talk about their strategy.”
Lusk was encouraged by the communication happening between the different departments as well, such as the police and the prosecutor’s office. One of HHHRC’s initiatives is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, where low-level offenders are diverted from being arrested to individualized case management. The pilot program operates in Chinatown, but is hoping to expand.
The program’s leader, David Shaku, said he was working with Prosecutor Steve Alm to create a memorandum of agreement among LEAD, Alm and HPD.
“Having that teamwork approach,” he said. “Some of that is around case conferencing. We call it an operational work-group where regularly we are able to meet with law enforcement partners in the district we operate in along with prosecutorial staff for that district.”
Shaku pointed out that 44% of offenses from LEAD participants were directly related to homelessness, such as violating park closures and sit-lie ordinances.
Alm thought that LEAD would be another solution the department could use to assist with homelessness.
“We’re looking at working with HPD, working with the LEAD folks to give that a shot as well, because we’ve got to try different approaches,” he said.
While most of Krucky’s plans were still in the planning phase, one issue that Mayor Rick Blangiardi campaigned on was to end sweeps, the city’s policy of clearing homeless out of Oahu’s parks and off sidewalks.
However, sweeps are still happening.
The advocacy group American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii posts about the sweeps happening almost every day on its Twitter account.
“The simple fact is that sweeps are still happening on a regular basis,” said ACLU Hawaii Executive Director Josh Wisch. “Ending them was a promise that the mayor made during his campaign, and we are looking forward to him keeping that promise.”
Krucky hoped to change the idea of sweeps into “community sanitation” — the difference being that sweeps are driven by complaints, while community sanitation would work within the community, including the homeless encampments to keep the area clean.
“We can develop ways for the community to participate in it. And the people that are creating the issues can participate,” he said.
“There are models out there that you can do that, but the only way to do that is to build some trust level between those people. And they have to see that it’s not an enforcement.”
He looked to efforts such as Hui Aloha, which works with homeless individuals to keep the areas where they live clean, as opposed to the big enforcement actions led under the Caldwell administration.
Partners in Care, a coalition of Hawaii nonprofit homeless providers, has also been collaborating with the city to create both long-term and immediate results.
“We would still like to see sweeps redirected into a more positive thing and not just be a movement of people, but an addressing of the actual issues,” said Executive Director Laura Thielen.
One issue Thielen has already been able to tackle with Krucky is making more hours and appointments for homeless people to get IDs.
“IDs have always been a very difficult thing for our folks to get because they lose them a lot,” she said.
Sumu Enaena and George Macomber have been homeless for “a long time,” so long they cannot recall how many years it has been.
“I’ve been trying to get housing,” Macomber said. “But I’m getting a hard time, we have no more ID.”
Enaena had just been asked to leave a shelter because she did not follow through with the required chores and Macomber left with her. That was one of the reasons neither wanted to go to another shelter right away.
That’s one piece of data that Krucky hopes to better understand: What drives a person to go to a shelter?
“What are the key points in that decision?” he asked. “Was it the amount of times we visited? Was it a situation? Is the data telling us it was a trauma situation? … And how many times did those key aspects occur? What do we need to do to have that event happen?”
As the plans are being developed, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet been fully seen in the homeless population because of Gov. David Ige’s moratorium on evictions.
Institute of Human Services Community Relations Director Jill Wright was particularly worried about restaurant workers or hotel workers who may have lost their jobs.
“We do anticipate seeing that demand increase,” she said.
“Whether those people come to a shelter first, or whether they double up with friends and try to wait it out in their cars, that remains to be seen.”
Krucky said that could lead to an increase in homeless people who are immediately seeking permanent housing.
“The real strain on the system is when evictions start to happen,” he said. “That’s a problem, because the system barely deals with what it has today.”
Krucky emphasized that he has only been in his position for about two months now, and although there might not be immediate changes, it’s coming.
“Everybody wants an answer before it’s ready to give,” he said.
“You have to understand things before you try to do that.”
Star-Advertiser staff writer Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.