Image: Ragnar Carlson

The House committees on Housing and Human Services’ joint informational briefing, held July 15, explored solutions–some more controversial than others–to the issue of chronic homelessness in the state. The hearing appeared to make some headway on a stubborn and complex challenge–chronic homelessness, which refers to that part of the homeless population that is persistent and does not respond–whether for reasons of addiction, health or simple disinterest–to traditional intervention such as shelter and training.

Legislators explored plausible service providers for the Housing First Pilot Program, a popular program that was passed by the Legislature and became law as Act 212 in the 2010 legislative session. The program will move homeless individuals immediately to their own apartments–funded by the Housing First special fund, which will be supported by increases in the conveyance tax on high-value properties–instead of transferring them through emergency shelters and transitional housing.

“I’m glad that people came and said this was a great plan,” said Rep. Rida Cabanilla, chairwoman of the Committee on Housing and author of the Housing First bill, at the briefing. “It’s cost-effective for the state. I have to remember that I work for the people of Hawaii, I work for the taxpayers of Hawaii, so I have to think what’s best for the many people that generate money for this state…I understand that we don’t have a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all [solution] to address the housing needs of our homeless, but I think we can assign different programs for the different needs.”

One example of Housing First is the proposed River Street project in Chinatown, which has met with fierce resistance from neighborhood organizations and politically active residents.

Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who was not at the hearing, said last week that he supports the Housing First model as a viable solution–despite its “not-in-my-backyard” challenges–to addressing the chronically homeless.

“[Housing First models] have worked on the mainland, and we would like to see that model implemented here in the city and county of Honolulu,” Caldwell said. “It’s a very cost-effective approach to addressing the chronic homelessness problem.”

The briefing also addressed the recent Safe Zones proposal that was introduced by Representative Tom Brower, vice-chairman of the Committee on Human Services, was less unanimous. That proposal aims to evict the homeless from the many parks they currently–and illegally–occupy and relocate them to designated areas throughout the island where they would be free to stay the night.

“We currently have camping zones everywhere by default,” said Brower. “We don’t want them to be at Kapiolani Park, we don’t want them to be at Ala Moana Park, but they’re already there. So I’m just suggesting that government get a better handle on the situation and provide certain campsites where homeless can be.”

However, Darlene Hein, director of community services at Waikiki Health Center, noted that such a system of forced relocation might not be so straightforward.

“You’re not going to be able to concentrate all the homeless in one specific area because people want to live in different areas,” she said. “And there are individuals who are severely mentally ill and there’s no way you’re going to get them to move. There are also groups that don’t get along, so you have to really look at what makes sense.”

But Hein agreed that the Safe Zones proposal, if implemented carefully and constructively, is a step in the right direction.

“We have to get past just sheltering people because just sheltering people is not moving us forward,” she said in response to Brower’s proposal. “It is easier when people are in one place. And I think the idea of putting something together that has a program and security and safety and allows them to move forward is a solution, but I don’t think it’s the only solution…We should really work together to set it up and make sure it works well.”

Caldwell supports the Safe Zones concept but stressed the need for clean-cut stipulations, like established rules against drug and alcohol use, effective staffing and security, access to sanitation facilities, proper waste-management, fees to fund operating costs and operation by a private service provider. He also emphasized that the Safe Zones proposal should not be accepted as a permanent solution to chronic homelessness.

“This is basically a port in the storm,” he said. “It’s for people to come in to port, get back on their feet, work with providers so that they can find permanent housing somewhere else and become productive citizens in our community…Some people think that Safe Zones are the panacea to solving all of the homeless problems…They think you can just plunk [the homeless] down in Safe Zones and all the problems go away. It’s not that simplistic. You need a holistic approach, and it needs to involve the entire community.”

It may even need to involve the homeless themselves. Last week, Honolulu Weekly asked homeless people camped at Queenʻs Beach–among those whom officials most urgently want out of the way–whether they would move to Browerʻs proposed Safe Zone on city property in Kakaako. All four people who agreed to speak to the Weekly said they would not.

“There will be drugs, gangs, crime, violence,” said a man who gave his name as Tom. “That’s what we’re all over here in Waikiki to get away from in the first place. I’d rather sit on a bench [on Kalakaua Avenue] all night than get beat up and robbed in Kakaako.”