Moiliili residents pack town hall meeting to address ‘homeless problem’

Barb Forsyth

MOILIILI—A Legislative Town Meeting was held on Thursday, July 8 at Washington Middle School’s cafeteria to discuss the growing “homeless” problem in the McCully-Moiliili area.

The meeting was spearheaded by Representative Scott Saiki in response to the strong concern about the issue among his constituents.

About 100 residents and business owners in the community came out to discuss solutions to the problem in general and its manifestation in front of the McCully-Moiliili Library in particular. The meeting featured speakers and representatives from the State of Hawaii, the City, the Honolulu Police Department, and various health and community organizations, many of whom attended the mayor’s forum on “homelessness” last month.

After a brief welcome by Hillary Chang, branch manager of the McCully-Moiliili Library, three guest speakers took the mic.

First up was Russ Saito, director of the State Department of Accounting and General Service (DAGS), who presented current work being done by various agencies to address “homelessness” at the State level and offered statistics, such as the fact that 11,680 houseless people in Hawaii received services from outreach service providers throughout 2009. He spoke about progress achieved and the many challenges ahead. One challenge he cited is the wait list of 10,000 names for Federal and State public housing units. State rent subsidy programs also require a long wait.

Jackie Lee from the Institute of Human Services (IHS) spoke next. IHS is an organization that does not routinely participate in outreach, as it is outside of the scope of their funding. However, houseless people in the area’s parks had become so bad that they conducted their own report between August and October 2009 and engaged in weekly outreach, Lee said. IHS investigated what kind of assistance houseless people desired most and found that help with employment was their largest concern, representing 26 percent of the responses. Medical services took the second largest slice of the pie graph with 22 percent; housing came in third with 18 percent.

The theme of what should be the highest priority when it comes to addressing the houselessness figured prominently throughout the meeting.

The third speaker, Debbie Morikawa from the Department of Community Services (DCS), stressed the fact that “homelessness” is a very complex issue that people often misunderstand. There are many reasons that people end up houseless, making it an especially complicated social problem to address. She stated that the number of people without houses was up by 15 percent in Oahu despite an increase in resources. Morikawa also touched on the 2010 Homeless Point-in-Time (PIT) Count conducted by the City and County of Honolulu, which found that 33 percent of persons experiencing houselessness were unsheltered, meaning that they were living in parks, beaches, the street, or other public places. 

The number of “chronic homeless,” defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously houseless for at least one year or has had at least four episodes of “homelessness” in the past three years, has also risen. Diagnosable substance use disorders, serious mental illness, developmental disabilities, and chronic physical illnesses all fall within HUD’s category of “disabling conditions.”

The “chronic homeless” distinction is important, as it characterizes much of East Oahu’s houseless population. According to the PIT count, East Honolulu has the second highest concentration of unsheltered chronically homeless individuals, but lack any kind of emergency shelters or safe havens. This gap in services is a major reason why the swelling houseless population ends up in places such as Ala Moana Beach Park or in front of the McCully-Moiliili Library. Chang estimates that there currently about 30 people sleeping outside of the library each night. 

Meeting attendees were there to share their concerns and discuss solutions to the problem. Questions and comments were written on cards and submitted to the panel.

People expressed fear for their safety and the safety of their children when going to the library or public parks, where they have witnessed violence, drug deals, and indecency without an adequate police response. Other people said that efforts to feed houseless people in the area breeds more “homelessness.”

There were questions ranging from “Can these people be shipped back to the Continental United States?” to the unlikely “Can FEMA modules from Hurricane Katrina be imported to house people.”

Most people, it seemed, just wanted to better understand the laws and measures currently in effect. The prevailing sentiment was that not nearly enough is being done to address the issue in an effective or compassionate way.

According to HPD Capt. Jerry Wojcik, there is no law against sleeping and storing one’s belongings on the sidewalk apart from maintaining a 36 inch distance between the property and the curb. This law is to ensure wheelchairs can pass through the space, and it is enforced, but other attempts to evict people from the library quickly becomes a violation of civil rights. Laurence Lau from the Department of Health chimed in that the mentally ill cannot be forced to take medication or go to a facility without solid proof that they are dangerous.

Some of the attendees believe that better access to jobs is paramount in lifting people out of houselessness. It is difficult for houseless people to gain employment for both obvious and less apparent reasons. Succeeding in a job interview situation without regular access to bathing facilities, clean laundry, or medical attention is hard enough; however, even the act of completing a job application can prove nearly impossible without internet access, since many companies only offer online applications. Therefore ISR’s outreach efforts include employment assistance such as bringing people printed applications and giving them access to classes that help them find work. 

Another strategy is the Housing First Approach programs, which is based on the premise that the way out of houselessness begins with housing and is followed by on-site supportive services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. The idea is to put people into housing before receiving treatment because it is difficult to address complex personal issues until basic needs like safety, shelter, and food are met. 

On July 7, House Bill 2318, which established the Housing First Special Fund, quietly passed through both houses without Lingle’s signature. It established the Housing First Special Fund, requiring the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to underwrite programs for the chronically homeless. 

Darlene Hein from the Waikiki Health Center called this a step forward, but said that pressure needs to be put on the administration to actually release the funds. River Street Residences, a Housing First initiative that is currently on hold due to resistance among Chinatown’s residents, illustrates the many reservations and misconceptions that people have with regard to permanent affordable rental units. Many of these concerns have to do with a fear of worsening the neighborhood and attracting more crime and houseless people to the area.

A common question people have with respect to the “chronically homeless” is why they don’t just go to a shelter. In fact, while shelters play a key role in providing temporary aid and services, they also place limitations on the persons who use them. Generally, personal possessions are not allowed inside—for many people that are houseless, leaving behind the few items they own is a tough sell. In addition, there is a lack of substance abuse treatment options; medical detox, for example, is not available to these people, making it unattractive to those who harbor addictions to go to a shelter where their vices are not allowed.

A permanent residence that affords people the personal liberties we all desire appears to be a necessary step towards a long term solution. 

Looking at data from other cities where the Housing First model has been employed, the approach appears to have made a large impact in the reduction of homelessness. The security that comes from a stable housing situation allows other barriers to a productive existence to be overcome. 

As Lou Erteschik from the Hawaii Disability Rights Center reminded the crowd in attendance, we must look at the realities of human existence and work with them to solve this problem. In response to concerns about the cost of such projects, Hein explained that it is actually cheaper to house people than to have them living on the street because once they are housed, they are more likely to re-enter society and pay taxes than to continue to drain public funds. 

After the speaker presentations and question and answer session, there was a recess followed by smaller group discussions with members of the panel. 

The meeting was scheduled to run one hour, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., yet the crowd remained thick until at least 8:00 p.m. Afterwards, I spoke with some of the speakers and attendees.

City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi explained that the meeting location had been moved from the library to the school in anticipation of the large crowd, and that even more people would have come had there not been problems with parking.

Rita from McCully is tired of squatters in her building and is reluctant to put her garbage out for fear that it will be strewn about. Her sentiment: “Forget the legalities—what can we do [to solve the problem]?”

Alexis, who lives in a building bordering Stadium Park, rarely takes her two small children to the park anymore; public urination and drug dealing have become regular deterrents, she said.

Kathy from McCully, who has lived and worked in the area for many years, is saddened by the fact that quality of life has gone downhill in the community. She said that because many residents are transient, and rent property rather than own, they are less invested and “don’t want to ruffle feathers.” This may be the case, but based on the attendance at and duration of the meeting, there is clearly a sizable group of McCully-Moiliili area residents that are engaged, committed, and holding our leaders accountable to bring about change.

For more information about the 2010 PIT count and Housing First, including the proposed River Street Residences, visit