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Honolulu’s new homeless program modified before launch

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s signature approach to addressing homelessness across Oahu — by eliminating the use of Honolulu police officers and instead relying on social service and health care workers around the clock — has been modified to now include the use of police officers, reduced in scope to the urban core and scaled back in its hours of operation.

Anton Krucky, the city’s director of Office of Housing and Homelessness, for months has been saying the city’s new Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement program would free up Honolulu Police Department officers’ time by not having them respond to nonviolent, homeless-related calls.

Instead, a new team of social workers and health care workers, who are in the process of being hired, are now expected to respond to homeless-related calls, backed up by HPD officers.

Even before he took office in January, Blangiardi pledged to eliminate the previous administration’s “compassionate disruption” approach to homelessness that used a combination of homeless sweeps and social service outreach to clear city streets and sidewalks of homeless encampments and offer housing and other serv­ices to Oahu’s homeless.

The city is no longer removing homeless people via sweeps of camps but is continuing to remove their possessions, Krucky said.

The new Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement approach represented Blangiardi’s first homeless-­related idea of his own, albeit modeled after a similar program borrowed from Denver.

But Oahu’s version already has been restricted to cover an area just from Kalihi to Waikiki. And instead of running 24 hours a day, the new concept has been scaled back to only two shifts per day, staffed by 12 to 20 workers with certifications in mental health, homeless outreach and medical practices who have yet to be hired.

CORE is expected to cost $3 million, using federal, COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act funds once they become available.

Krucky said that hiring has yet to begin but that new employees will respond to calls in two newly branded trucks.

“The initial launch will be urban to get a sense of the flow and everything,” Krucky said.

CORE is modeled after Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response program that deploys paramedics and mental health professionals to respond to nonviolent, homeless-related calls such as trespassing and indecent exposure.

In its first six months of operation in 2020, Denver’s STAR program responded to 748 calls and none required the assistance of the Denver Police Department, according to a STAR Program Evaluation.

The evaluation did not identify the number of homeless people who actually accepted offers of serv­ices, such as housing to get off the street and medical assistance.

In Honolulu’s urban core, it’s still unclear what homeless-related calls CORE workers respond to, Krucky said. Conversations are underway with call center officials, he said.

Even though HPD officers likely will respond with CORE workers, Krucky said the CORE team is expected to spend more time with homeless clients on the street, freeing up police and paramedics for other calls.

“The determinations will probably be where you have somebody who is kind of in their own world, yelling and screaming or, or they’re having a drug-related problem,” Krucky said. “The call can be, ‘CORE can go, or CORE can go with HPD until HPD feels comfortable that the scene is OK,’ and then they can move on, and then CORE can stay and handle the scene.”

CORE staff who are not answering calls will be expected to meet with homeless people being discharged from emergency rooms to offer additional serv­ices, including shelter beds.

Unlike Denver’s initial study, Krucky promised that Honolulu’s CORE program will track and publish data on a wide range of issues, including the number of times police are able to leave a scene early and how often homeless people accept offers of services.

The team that planned the CORE program in Honolulu was comprised of representatives from the city, state, service providers and businesses and two homeless people. The last planning meeting concluded in June.

“We have just about put the last dots and T’s on the key document that launches a program,” Krucky said.

The finalization of the program comes as Blangiardi announced that the HPD presence in Chinatown will be heavily increased in response to the community’s growing concerns about homelessness, crimes and violence.

HPD will now provide 24/7 coverage in Chinatown in four, six-hour shifts that will consist of one supervisor and six officers. Officers will patrol in pairs and report enforcement statistics daily. The increased enforcement will focus on three areas from River to Bishop streets, North Beretania and North King streets.

Krucky plans to start the CORE program in September. However, because the project is using federal ARPA funds, the release of the money will determine when CORE will be launched.

“We’re just receiving the money,” Krucky said. “There’s a little bit of time that’s needed to say, ‘OK, you can tap that money.’ … To roll out a whole new program, that just shows a great commitment on the administration’s part to support it.”

Correction: The city is no longer removing homeless people via sweeps of camps but is continuing to remove their possessions. An earlier version failed to say possessions are still being removed.
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