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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hawaii legislators considering campground for homeless

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Lawmakers yesterday said more needs to be done to move the chronically homeless out of parks and off the streets and said opening a "homeless campground" could be one solution, especially for those who don't want to move into shelters.

With no new sources of funding, it's unlikely such a proposal could move forward. But lawmakers, in a legislative briefing yesterday on homelessness, said they are trying to search for more money for homeless programs and expressed support for out-of-the-box solutions to help the homeless who are hardest to house.

About 20 percent to 25 percent of Hawai'i's homeless population at any one time is considered "chronically homeless," which often means they have been on the streets for a year or more and suffer from a mental health or substance abuse issue.

"We get a lot of public pressure (about chronically homeless people), the economic impact, the blight that they create," state Rep. Rida Cabanilla, chairwoman of the Housing Committee, said in the briefing. "We need to shelter more of them."

Cabanilla, D-42nd ('Ewa, Waipahu, Honouliuli), added that because of the state's budget crunch, any new program or project would either have to come from a new funding source or from cuts to other services. She said there is interest in reviewing where homeless dollars are going to make sure they are being well spent.

"I just want to make sure that those funds are being put to good use," she said.

Cabanilla supported the idea of a campground being set up for chronically homeless people who don't want to go to shelters. Russ Saito, state comptroller and the governor's special adviser on homelessness, raised the idea as one possibility during the briefing yesterday, saying such camps have worked in other states.

Saito said he wouldn't support taking funding from other existing homeless programs to fund a homeless campground. And Saito added that the best solution to the state's homeless crisis remains building more affordable rental units.

Earlier in the briefing, during a presentation to lawmakers, Saito said some homeless people are "not willing" to go into shelters, and those tend to be homeless who prefer to sleep in parks or other public places. "What I care about is they deny everybody else the opportunity to use services they choose to occupy," he said.

The homeless briefing came as advocates say they're seeing the ranks of the homeless population growing. Sandy Miyoshi, director of state homeless programs, said a new homeless "point-in-time" count will be conducted shortly statewide.

The issue of the chronic homeless population has made headlines in recent months, after a new encampment moved into Kapi'olani Park and then was moved out again. There is also evidence that the number of chronic homeless people is growing in urban Honolulu, especially in Chinatown, residents have said.

Pamela Menter, chairwoman of Partners in Care, a consortium of homeless service providers, told lawmakers yesterday that just because someone who is on the streets refuses help, that doesn't mean they don't want it. "They do change their minds. People need to be encouraged. That's what providers are for," she said.

Organizations are making progress to tackle the homeless problem, she added, "but not because we are well-funded." And resources are being stretched more than ever as more people seek help and waiting lists for all kinds of services grow. "The money that we currently have is barely sustaining the safety net," Menter said.

There were 3,268 people in shelters statewide in January 2009, and 2,514 unsheltered people, according to a statewide point-in-time count, which totals the number of homeless people during a particular "point in time."

State Rep. John Mizuno, D-30th (Kamehameha Heights, Kalihi Valley, Fort Shafter), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said the chronically homeless population represents a "tough problem" and campgrounds could be a solution.

Darlene Hein, director of community services for the Waikiki Health Center, which has outreach programs for the homeless, said setting up campgrounds for the homeless is a "fine idea," but it would require planning so that the facility was secure and so campers had access to bathrooms and transportation lines.

"You have to have adequate sanitation," she said. "You have to have security."

The idea of opening a tent city for the homeless isn't new here. In 2003, a proposal to open one near Wai'anae Boat Harbor died because of public opposition.