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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 7, 2006

State: homeless emergency

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gov. Linda Lingle issued an emergency proclamation yesterday to help speed up the creation of emergency shelters on the Leeward Coast, where an estimated 4,000 homeless people are sleeping on beaches from Nanakuli to Makua.

The proclamation allows the state to waive procurement and permitting rules in setting up the shelters, but it's still unclear when they'll be ready and how many will be needed. The shelters would likely be similar to a temporary shelter set up in a state warehouse in Kaka'ako, which opened in May to more than 300 homeless people, 100 of whom are children.

Leeward residents and homeless advocates applauded the move yesterday, saying the homeless situation has reached crisis levels.

"It is long overdue. I compliment her for taking the initiative and really recognizing we are beyond a crisis," said Kanani Kaaiawahia-Bulawan, executive director of the Wai'anae Community Outreach Center. "We need to be cautious; like with every urgency, there's the need to be responsible. We need to respond effectively."

New urgency was put on the issue last week when the city announced plans to renovate parks on the Leeward Coast. The work will require the parks to close at night, displacing homeless people who stay there.

The governor asked Mayor Mufi Hannemann to postpone the work until the shelters were open, but the city said the renovations were past due and could not be put off any longer. Renovations in Wai'anae are set to start in August. Work in Ma'ili, Nanakuli and Kea'au, along with other Leeward Coast parks, will follow in September.

The number of homeless people living in Leeward O'ahu has skyrocketed since 2002, with campsites dominating the view along a 16-mile stretch of Wai'anae coastline.

RESIDENTS CONCERNED

Leeward residents have raised concerns about the situation for months. Last week, more than 400 packed into a meeting room at Wai'anae District Park to discuss the problem with the governor, citing beach-access and health concerns.

They also said the policymakers had an obligation to help the homeless, given the dearth of affordable housing statewide.

Lingle said then that the situation was something to "be ashamed of," and added in a news release yesterday that she wanted to work with the community, private sector, military and city to "assemble and coordinate the critical pieces we need to provide meaningful short-term and long-term solutions to end homelessness."

She also said that the "scope and magnitude" of the problem in Leeward O'ahu is much larger than the situation in Kaka'ako, and "required a broader and more diverse range of facilities, location and services and will involve more organizations."

Suzanne Leonida, a member of the Wai'anae Neighborhood Board, said she attended the three-hour meeting with Lingle and heard dozens of suggestions from residents, advocates and the homeless a signal people wanted to work together to solve the problem. "That's good that she's working on it," Leonida said.

But the Wai'anae resident also said there needs to be monitoring of emergency shelters to ensure the safety of those staying there, along with nearby residents. And, she added, the state needs to think about long-term solutions so the homeless housed in the state facilities won't be left high and dry once the shelters are closed.

AFFORDABLE RENTALS

Mary Oneha, director of quality and performance at the Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Center, agreed, saying the homeless problem will never be solved as long as affordable rentals are so hard to find.

"I think the problem definitely is big," she said. Oneha added that state officials need to remember that not all homeless people are the same: Many are working; others are members of homeless families with children; and a percentage have mental illnesses and physical disabilities that require more supportive services.

In 2005, the medical center served more than 700 homeless people on Leeward beaches, providing food, healthcare and case-management services.

"Just having housing is not the answer," Oneha said. "We also need some supports in place just to help them through their daily life."

The state has notified service providers on O'ahu about its intent to open the shelters, and is looking for nonprofits to manage operations.

Lingle said the state is also assessing what other services and donations nonprofits or faith-based groups are interested in contributing.

Utu Langi, program director of the state's Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, said he's found many of the homeless he serves simply lack housing.

"Those will transition real fast," he said, adding that others need psychiatric care or vocational training. "We want to stabilize people."

The most important thing the shelter has done, he added, is make connections with homeless people who had before been invisible, sleeping in parks or staying in cars. "What I'm doing is making that initial contact and building a relationship," he said.

'A BIGGER PROBLEM'

Langi said the shelters in Wai'anae will likely have a similar population to the one in Kaka'ako, with a percentage of working people, families and chronically homeless. As director of the H-5 Project, a charity group, Langi feeds dozens of homeless along the Leeward Coast every Saturday.

"Over on the Wai'anae Coast, it's a bigger problem," Langi said.

To help guide the state's efforts on the Wai'anae Coast, Lingle also appointed a liaison who will work with private, public and nonprofit entities. Kaulana Park works as the executive assistant to the director at the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

"I have chosen Kaulana to manage and coordinate all of these activities and groups, while overseeing the solutions we need implemented to help the homeless living on the Leeward Coast," Lingle said. "The largest communities of DHHL homesteads are on the Leeward Coast, and Kaulana will bring that history ... with him."

Before joining the Hawaiian Home Lands Department, Park was manager of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs' Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund. He has also been a manager with Bank of America and assistant branch manager of First Hawaiian Bank.

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.