Littering complaint leads to Kaneohe’s confrontation with houselessness

News Report
Colleen Sanders

KANEOHE—What started out as a littering complaint quickly escalated into a confrontation recently with the growing problem of houselessness on the Windward side.

Bill Sager, member of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, recounted being approached by a concerned community member.

Sager recalled: “It came to the Neighborhood Board because of a gentleman who cleans up litter often twice a day. He tried to get the litter cleaned up, as a result of these people camping. He got a big runaround, so he came to the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board and asked for our help. So we went to take a look at what was going on. Basically, a group of homeless people are camping in the brush of the Kaneohe bridge that crosses Kaneohe stream on Kamehameha Highway.”

Upon visiting the site, Sager found litter and “personal effects” strewn about the ground.

“At that same time, we also talked to one of the neighbors who said that the people who are rested in that area frequently get drunk and start fighting and screaming and hollering in the middle of the night, and he’s called the police multiple times and has never seen any result from those calls,” Sager said. “He didn’t say the police didn’t respond, but he didn’t have any indication that whatever their response was effective.”

Residents are encouraged not to confront the people causing the disturbance.

“While I was there on the soccer field on a Saturday morning, there was a couple of people fighting under the banyan trees,” Sager said. “One of them was a mentally unstable individual. ...We didn’t pick up the litter because we were primarily concerned with a confrontation.”

Houselessness in the area is not news to anyone, and often goes overlooked so long as no confrontations take place.

“I think if people camp in a place that is hidden and they don’t disturb their neighbors they probably can get away with such activity for an extended period of time,” Sager said. “We’ve seen [the Kaneohe campers] there and had complaints about it for years. A couple years at least. ... It was only when we learned of this litter thing and went down there and looked at it ourselves we realized it was an issue.”

The tense understanding communities tend to take towards houselessness appears to be driven by a lack of viable option. The problem goes beyond an environmental issue and into one of economic and social policy.

“Yes, I think it’s an unrecognized issue,” Sager said. Homelessness is pretty much hidden. The best estimate I got was about a year ago, and that were about 300 homeless in Kaneohe.”

Mobile populations are inherently hard to count.

As to the litter problem, Sager hopes to mobilize a group of volunteers to clean it up. As to the broader issue of houselessness, there is far more work to be done.

“I think we should find out how many people are living in that area and find out how we can help them get help,” Sager said. “I think that it would be really great if we could enlist them in helping clean the area up because it’s their mess. It might be difficult because we don’t know how many of them are suffering from addiction and mental health problems.”

Shannon Wood, a longtime advocate for houseless people, said that a cut in services and a lack of shelters make addressing houselessness difficult.

“There is no shelter,” Wood said. “We don’t have anyplace. Linda Lingle said two weeks ago that a lot of the services that have been provided by the State should be taken over by counties. I don’t think anybody’s really doing anything except the Family Promise Program.”

That program, co-founded by Wood in 2004, is run out of various churches and can only host 14 people at a time, a number which makes only a slight dent in the larger issue.

“I think there’s a serious problem—much more serious than it was when we first started out,” Wood said. “Most people in Kailua and Kaneohe would say, “Oh, there’s more than two homeless people here other than ‘The Mango Man’ and ‘Woman in White?’”

From Wood’s perspective, the problem of houselessness has increased while facilities to address houselessness have either not been able to keep pace or have decreased. It is a complex issue with many facets, including locating the responsibility for addressing the problem.

The government typically provides some money to contract that work out to private non-profits. Since that money has been cut, the churches remain one of the primary sources for outreach, and churches have less funding than non-profit organizations.

On top of the lack of funding services face, the reasons people become and remain homeless are varied and often influence the public’s willingness to address the situation.

In hard economic times, more people will lose financial security. Once houseless, the obstacles to overcome are high: lack of public housing, high cost of rent, town ordinances prohibiting more than five unrelated people to live together in one house, and the stigma of being houseless. In many cases, substance abuse and mental illness are frequent factors, making rehabilitation nearly impossible without the right attention and resources.

“There are those who are homeless because of economic situations,” Sager said. “I may be stereotyping or biased or uninformed, but I tend to think that most of the homeless we are seeing here in Kaneohe that are not in shelters can’t take advantage of the system or are people who are addicted in one way or have mental health problems.”

Wood picked up on that thread: “These are fell-through-the-cracks people. Volunteers require training to deal with these types of people. If they are capable of dealing with rules and regulations, for them it’s much different, there’s help in town. But for those people who are mentally ill or have significant substance abuse issues, whether or not it’s alcohol or drugs, there is nothing currently in the system for them. It’s difficult in the best of circumstances. The State Department of Health—they’ve taken their big hits too.”

Wood’s involvement in her work comes from the realization that “it could have easily been me.”

The bottom line, Wood said, is that there is no place else for houseless people to go.

Sager concurred: “Moving location is not a solution. There are no easy answers.”