Mayor preps plan for homelessness

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HILO — Mayor Harry Kim is nearly ready to bring his plan to attack the problem of homelessness to the Hawaii County Council.

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HILO — Mayor Harry Kim is nearly ready to bring his plan to attack the problem of homelessness to the Hawaii County Council.

Kim will develop and present it to the council within weeks after the cleanup of the Old Airport Park in Kailua-Kona is finished. He previously said he will use the Old Airport cleanup as a template for moving forward islandwide.

Gov. David Ige’s proclamation of a homelessness state of emergency expired in fall 2016. But much remains to be done.

“I’ve taken a keen interest, as have the other members of the council,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung.

He said the council wants Kim to have time to create a plan and stands ready to support the effort.

“Other council members, myself included, had listed homelessness as one of our priorities, if not our top priority,” Chung said.

Kim called the “huge gap between the haves and the have-nots” in Hawaii “a massive problem” and said home prices are now out of reach for most workers.

The “dream of having a home on this island” has vanished for most, he said.

Because of that, “it’s not homelessness any more — it’s the lifestyle of the state of Hawaii,” Kim said.

About 12,000-15,000 people statewide are homeless each year, according to HOPE Services, the island’s leading provider of services for homeless people.

Contributors to homelessness overlap and vary.

Home and rent prices are among them. So are mental health, family problems, lack of available apartments, addiction, job loss, criminal history, domestic violence, physical health, post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and, in some cases, a preference to live an unencumbered life.

Chung, whose district includes downtown Hilo, thinks “a big percentage of these people who are homeless right now are doing so willingly.” But, he said, families with kids usually aren’t homeless by choice.

In 2016, 51 percent of those affected in Hawaii County were first-time homeless, according to HOPE Services.

Fifty-eight percent were single, with the rest couples or part of a family, and 33 percent were younger than 18.

Homelessness affects Hilo’s Mooheau Park bandstand and nearby bus station, Chung said, but also “outlying areas and the downtown.”

With Old Airport Park, Kim wants to be able to find temporary or permanent housing solutions for homeless people rather than just kicking them out. A temporary shelter of canopies was set up, for example, in the Old Kona Industrial Area. The county worked hand in hand with HOPE Services to house people from the park. Some accepted, others declined.

The goal is to eventually be able to find homeless people islandwide solutions for more permanent housing.

Since mental health issues often are associated with homelessness, Chung wants the state Legislature to fund a new state mental health hospital.

“It’s vitally important that we get a better mental health system here on the Big Island,” he said. “That would make huge inroads into this homeless issue.”

But Kim said he wants Hilo Medical Center’s mental health services boosted financially instead.

Kim’s effort to get displaced Kona homeless people housed “seems to be a sensible approach,” Chung said. “It’s a humanitarian approach.”

Jeffery Horie and David Shubert sleep in spots each finds near the Hilo bus station in East Hawaii.

The men, Horie originally from Waimea and Shubert from Illinois, have been homeless for years.

Shubert seeks day labor and says he should be on disability because of severe pain but hasn’t tried to qualify.

For Horie, the best thing county officials could do is create jobs for the homeless.

“There is so much talent out here on the streets,” Horie said last week. “If their talents can be put to use in a way that’s in line with their talent, that would be great.”

Shubert dreams of a large shelter to sleep in, take duties to keep the place clean and stay until permanent housing is found.

Homelessness affects Hilo businesses, said Kim Chiodo, manager of Hilo Shark’s Cafe.

“It’s going to bring us more people,” Chiodo thought when she learned the Old Kona Airport Park would be off-limits to the homeless.

She empathizes with people who have no homes. But said her business is small and customers with young kids worry if homeless people loiter. Chiodo said some homeless people sometimes come in to buy a small item and then loiter.

“They have all of their belongings with them, and they kind of set up shop,” she said, speaking frankly about a problem affecting many Hilo businesses. When nothing is done by county or state officials, she said, “it just falls upon the small businesses” to help as much as they’re able.

Homeless people in Hilo can be found sleeping in places such as along Bayfront, at Mooheau Park, along Kamehameha Avenue, in parked vehicles or at storefronts.

Ruben Quisisem, owner of TNT Seafoods, said people used to sleep at his door front, but he had a security gate installed. Now, the gate is locked nightly, and the store front is one of few on Kamehameha without at least one person sleeping in the doorway.

Private security guard Manuel Luna Jr. patrols the Hilo bus station and a bus stop at the Prince Kuhio Plaza.

He said homeless residents near the mall “come out, they walk around and always say, ‘How are you, uncle?’” He appreciates the respectful, courteous greetings.

Homelessness has grown throughout the years, said Luna, a retired first sergeant with the Army and National Guard Reserves, who served in Korea.

These days, he said, there’s a wider mix of people who are homeless, including many from the mainland. HOPE Services said in 2016 that 33 percent of homeless people in the state are Native Hawaiian, despite representing only about 20 percent of the total population.

Luna said he also knows veterans who are homeless.

“I always say, ‘Why don’t you go to the (Veterans Administration)?’” he said.

Some, he said, don’t want to go for various reasons, including PTSD. Any veteran who still has a DD214 service form, Luna said, can get help.

HOPE Services indicated 8 percent of Big Island homeless are veterans.

When homeless take drugs or alcohol, Luna reminds them they can’t do that “here” — near the mall bus stop — and “so they go right back in the forest.”

At Mooheau Park, Luna said, homeless people “sleep out in the open and they do whatever they want.”

Horie said if you can’t accept where you are in life, such as being homeless, you need to change.

“I’m OK where I’m at. But there are those out here who are not — and it’s those I worry about,” he said.

A homelessness plan for the Big Island, Chung said, must include housing options, enforcement and “wrap-around” services, which typically include assessments for physical and mental health and case management.

Kim said once the Old Airport Park cleanup is complete, he expects to meet with organization representatives and county officials to review what was learned and finalize his plan.

Meanwhile, acts of kindness reassure Horie and Shubert.

“Sometimes people will come by, hand out pizza and McDonald’s,” Shubert said.

“There’s a lot of great people here in Hawaii that come by to help us,” Horie added. “God bless them.”

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Kim said homelessness was so daunting at first that it seemed impossible to address. But, he said, “because of people joining in, what we can do has really uplifted us. I think this is going to be huge.”

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.