Single, homeless and nowhere to go
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By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Two years after the state opened a shelter in Kaka'ako to help a growing number of homeless families, two new homeless campsites in urban Honolulu are raising questions about what's being done for single homeless people who often suffer from mental illness or drug addictions.
The discussion comes as the state is looking to change its focus on homelessness in the coming year, from sheltering the homeless to housing them. Officials plan to meet with reporters next week to discuss the future of the statewide homeless strategy and its next steps in addressing the crisis.
"Our focus is really going to be turning ... to affordable housing," said Russell Pang, the governor's spokesman. "You can't keep putting people in shelters."
Though social service providers welcome the focus on affordable housing, they say single homeless people shouldn't be forgotten. Providers say there are opportunities for homeless families to get help, and added those resources are growing as the state funnels more money and personnel to the problem. But single homeless people, some of whom have been on the streets for years, are not getting as much support, they say.
"Society sees them as people who should be able to make it on their own," said Darlene Hein, director of the Waikiki Care-A-Van, which provides medical supplies, food and other support to homeless islandwide. "We have limited resources for individuals who are single ... and this is a very difficult population to work with."
And money for at least two programs that serve homeless with mental health or substance issues was recently cut because of a budget shortfall, providers said. The Institute for Human Services, which runs two emergency homeless shelters, lost $100,000 in state Adult Mental Health Department funding this month. The Waikiki Health Center lost $50,000. Both were annual allocations.
Pang acknowledged that the state has been focusing its efforts on families with children.
There are no immediate plans to expand services to single homeless people.
$41 MILLION SPENT
It's unclear how much single homeless with mental health or other needs will factor into the talks state officials are having as they figure out how to proceed with a statewide campaign to address homelessness. That campaign has cost more than $41 million over the past two years, much of which went to opening shelters in Leeward O'ahu, along with the first state shelter — Next Step — in Kaka'ako two years ago. The majority of people in those shelters are families.
Pang said the creation of affordable housing is a major focus in moving forward.
Still, he said, the state is committed to building a permanent home for Next Step — a project that is expected to cost $20 million. Since the permanent shelter won't be ready for at least three years, and the current Kaka'ako site will have to be vacated by this summer, officials are also searching for interim sites.
At the meeting with reporters, officials are also expected to discuss how far along they are in narrowing down those potential locations, a process that has not been easy given the dearth of available land in Honolulu and the potential response from residents.
Meanwhile, a plan to house some families from Next Step at Puahala Homes, a public housing complex in Liliha, has gone back to the community for more discussion after a host of residents and lawmakers raised concerns, Pang said.
He said the state is interested in making more progress in placing families in permanent housing.
And though providers say they understand why the state is centering on families — and agree children need the most attention when it comes to the homeless crisis — some pointed to two new homeless encampments in Honolulu as evidence that single homeless people, oftentimes with mental health or other issues, also need support.
SLEEPING ON WALL
One of the encampments has taken shape along the Ala Moana Beach Park wall that runs adjacent to Ala Moana boulevard. At night, for at least a week, some 30 people have slept on or near the wall, sometimes even setting up tents or sleeping bags.
The park has been closed nightly since 2006 — a move that forced some 200 homeless people to move elsewhere — but police said they have decided not to pursue those on the wall because they have no other place to go.
Moon Waukazo, who has been homeless for about a year, has slept on the Ala Moana wall. He also has hidden in trees at the park to avoid police.
"It's rough," said the retired Marine on a recent weekday.
Though he said he has not been bothered while on the wall, he has been told to keep out of the park at night. Recently, he got two citations for staying in the park after it closed at 10 p.m.
Capt. Frank Fujii, spokesman for the Police Department, said the wall policy could change if the number of homeless increases.
"We're trying to be very reasonable," Fujii said, adding the department has not gotten an "official ruling" on whether the park wall is indeed considered park property or not. "For us, it's not problematic at this time."
There are no families on the wall.
It also appears to be mostly singles at an encampment in Iwilei, where about two dozen people have erected makeshift tents behind a Nimitz Highway barricade. Though the encampment isn't visible from Nimitz Highway, some bottles and chairs flung over the barricade as counterweights are. Officials say they will sweep the site tomorrow.
The encampment has been there for about three weeks.
Providers said they don't know if the encampments mean the homeless population in Honolulu is getting bigger.
Utu Langi, manager of Next Step, said he has seen some new faces in his weekend feedings in urban Honolulu and wouldn't be surprised if the downturning economy is sending more people out onto the streets. On weekends, he feeds about 300 homeless in Honolulu.
The Institute for Human Services men's shelter is just around the corner from the Iwilei encampment, and spokeswoman Kate Bepko said some of those camped out there have been in the shelter and were kicked out because of drug use or not following rules. She said the shelter does not have the personnel to do outreach at the camp.
Bepko pointed out that what makes the single population of homeless so difficult is that many are chronically homeless, and often are suspicious of help and cannot be easily convinced to seek space in a shelter or a treatment center.
Though the IHS women's shelter is full, its men's shelter has space. This week, more than 150 men were staying at the shelter, Bepko said. It can hold up to 240 men in cots or sleeping bags on the floor.
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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