Lawmakers visit homeless to seek input on solutions
• Photo gallery: Visiting the Homeless
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
WAI'ANAE — Debbie Purdy was feeding her puppy yesterday morning at Kea'au Beach Park when she got some unusual visitors: Three legislators and two pastors (with a troupe of local reporters in tow) were standing in front of her tent expectantly. If she was fazed, she didn't show it.
Instead, Purdy and her boyfriend, David O'Brien, who have lived at the park for about a year, offered their guests plastic chairs under a tarpaulin shade cover affixed to their tent.
Over the next 10 minutes, Purdy and O'Brien patiently answered questions — explaining everything from how they're trying to get into a shelter to how they store their fresh water. Purdy said she has been homeless for more than a decade. O'Brien became homeless after coming to Hawai'i from Texas two years ago.
Once the group had moved on, congregating around another tent, Purdy said she didn't think much would come of the visit, but was grateful the people making policy decisions about homelessness were willing to talk — and listen — to the people experiencing it.
"If they could help, that would be good," said Purdy, 46. Her boyfriend, 53, agreed.
"I think you guys are doing the right thing by coming out here," he told the group.
Lawmakers set up the visit, with the help of pastors from the People of Promise Church in Wai'anae, to get an on-the-ground sense of the issues facing homeless in the area. The visit, and others like it to parks and shelters around the island in the coming months, are expected to help shape legislative proposals to address homelessness in the 2011 session.
Yesterday, state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, was asking the homeless what policies might help them.
Several said they'd like a homeless shelter that accepts dogs. Others said they supported the idea of "safe zones," or places where they could set up tents without fear of being kicked out or ticketed, which were also supported by the Legislature in a resolution last session.
Still others raised issue with the long wait to get into public housing. That's a concern for legislators, too, who are eying time limits for public-housing residents at a time when the waiting list to get in has grown to 10,000.
Mizuno said visiting Kea'au Park yesterday was about seeing firsthand the struggles that the homeless endure, and getting input on what works and what doesn't when it comes to homeless programs.
"It's so easy for lawmakers just to sit in their offices and talk about policy issues," he said. Of the visit, Mizuno added, "This is a start — going out and actually meeting the homeless face-to-face."
About 200 people — mostly singles and couples, but some families — live in Kea'au Beach Park. The campers have to periodically take down their tents so they're not ticketed.
Outreach workers said many of the families at the park have been in shelters before, but have left or been evicted. Some of the singles and couples at the park could get into shelters but prefer to live at the park.
State Rep. Rida Cabanilla, chairwoman of the House Housing Committee, said some in the park might benefit from "Housing First" programs that house chronically homeless "first," before tackling their other issues, including substance abuse or mental health problems.
While walking between tents — and after politely being asked to leave one — Cabanilla said she recognizes that homelessness is not an easy issue to solve, especially since some homeless say they prefer the streets to shelters.
"We get so much public pressure" to address homelessness, she said. But in situations like that, she said, "what do we do?"
The visit comes amid growing concern about the homeless population in the Islands, which appears to be growing, according to preliminary results from the state's annual homeless point-in-time count.
Sophina Placencia, executive director of Wai'anae Community Outreach, said the count, which has not yet been released, showed the number of homeless on the Wai'anae Coast increased about 5 percent from 2009.
Placencia was at the park with Mizuno, Cabanilla and State Rep. Maile Shimabukuro, D-45th, (Wai'anae, Mākaha, Mākua) yesterday, and said the visit was well-intentioned.
But she urged lawmakers not to make generalizations about the homeless statewide based on whom they met at the park. Homeless are as varied as the population at large, she said, and they differ greatly by region: There are more families and longtime residents homeless on the Wai'anae Coast; more singles and new arrivals homeless in town.
Of the visit, she added, "I don't think it's going to serve any purpose."
Bert and Marianne Beaman, who live at the park with their dog, were more optimistic. "To me, anything can help," said Bert Beaman, 48, after meeting with the lawmakers.
The couple became homeless two years ago, after the rent on their Mā'ili home was raised. They had never been homeless before, but have grown accustomed to living on the beach. Now, they say they won't move into a shelter if it means giving up their dog.
Beaman's wife said she hoped the visit would pave the way for a place in Wai'anae where homeless could go and set up tents legally.
"Where do they want us to go?" she asked. "Housing is just sky-high."