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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 22, 2010

Changes in Wailuku raise concern about crime, homelessness

The Maui News

WAILUKU, Maui - Even as the makeover of Wailuku town continues in a decades-long redevelopment project, some merchants and residents expressed concern Friday that a concentration of social services in the area could attract homelessness and crime.

Wailuku either already is or will soon become home to a halfway house, housing for the developmentally disabled, a residential mental health care center, a free clinic, a battered women's shelter and a soup kitchen, said resident and commercial broker Susan Halas.

"I'm not advocating kicking any nonprofit out, not at all, but maybe we should consider that we are at a tipping point," Halas said when reached by phone Friday. "At some point, if you only have people there because they are receiving assistance, if nonprofits occupy a large percentage of your available space, then it becomes difficult for for-profits to come in."

But Wailuku businessman Richard Dan said Market Street was in no way a new hotbed of crime.

Dan agreed there is a problem with "annoying" drunks at the privately owned banyan tree park at the corner of Market and Vineyard streets but said that overall the complaints are overblown.

"They are trying to say there are junkies nodding off in the alleys, and that's not the truth," Dan said.

The Maui Redevelopment Agency has adopted a plan for the 60-acre area calling for mixed use, such as buildings that combine residential, business, office and retail functions. But Executive Director Jocelyn Perreira said the group still has a way to go toward its goal.

Some residents and merchants blame the MRA - a recommending agency for redevelopment in Wailuku - for the influx of nonprofits to the area. Others say it's still too early to pass judgment on the effects of a master plan developed years ago.

After an MRA meeting was canceled Friday due to lack of quorum, a community meeting on the crime and homeless issues was hosted by the Maui Planning Department instead. Maui Police Department Capt. Jody Singsank and county Housing and Human Concerns Director Lori Tsuhako met with Wailuku residents and merchants to hear their concerns and answer questions. Speakers said they were concerned about people drinking and doing drugs in parks and panhandling in the neighborhood.

"This is good because we didn't know that this had gotten out of hand," Singsank said of the public testimony provided to her in the Planning Department conference room.

But when asked if Singsank could revive the former community policing program, she said she doubted the department had the money.

She also wouldn't commit to a suggestion by Wailuku Main Street Association Executive Director Jocelyn Perreira to provide subsidized housing for an officer to live in the neighborhood in order to discourage trouble.

"How come the homeless don't last long in Wailea?" said Wailuku businessman and resident John Rippy.

Police said that's because Wailea business owners and residents got together, as did people in Kihei recently, to pay for private security teams and organize effective neighborhood watch programs.

Every morning, property owner Helen Nielsen said, she and her husband must collect the trash left the night before from the new benches and planters installed by the county during its multimillion-dollar Main Street reconstruction a couple years ago.

"It's frustrating when every step you take forward, we take two steps back," Nielsen said.

Perreira said the problem is a complex issue. Homeless may congregate in Wailuku after being moved out of other communities, and the town's low rents and accessibility make it attractive to nonprofits, she said.

"People complain about nonprofits sometimes, but what's the alternative, do you want vacant buildings instead?" Perreira said. "There is a real concern, and there is a disconnect."

Some Wailuku residents are offended when they hear people complain about the town's problem with vagrants.

"These are often residents' family members," she said. "This kind of disrespectful talk hurts."

Mental Health Kokua, Family Life Center, Ka Hale A Ke Ola Outreach and the Salvation Army all work in Wailuku to address homeless issues, Tsuhako said. She expressed confidence that the organizations can alleviate residents' concerns about homeless people gathering in the town.

Nonprofit representatives asked Wailuku residents and merchants to update them on conditions in the town.

They noted that most homeless are not criminals but could need help or medication. Mental Health Kokua Maui County Services Director Frank Cummings said many of his clients have also been beaten down mentally and physically by homelessness.

Family Life Center's outreach workers help homeless people with "anything they need to move them forward," said Maude Cumming, executive director of the Kahului-based agency.

Participants ended the meeting by pledging to increase communication and continue to work on the town's issues, while police pledged support.

"Until you have police presence day and night, they are going to continue to do monkeyshines," Perreira said.