Officials seek innovative ways like community court as homeless solution

  • The proposed Village 9 and affordable housing project site, colored in green with the serial number ending in 004, is shown as part of the area of the Kealakehe Regional Park, numbered 007. The MOU areas are areas identified as environmentally sensitive. The intersection at the top is Ane Keohokalole Highway and Kealakehe Parkway. (Courtesy map)
  • A homeless man sleeps behind a rock wall by the county parking lot on Kuakini Highway. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Michael, who is homeless, sells his lei by the seawall on Monday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A homeless woman walks along Hanama Place. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • People rest on the wall in front of Big Island Grill on Monday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — If we build it, will they come?

It’s one thing to have a site that can house and service dozens or even hundreds of homeless in West Hawaii. But it’s quite another to entice some of Kona’s most troubled residents to participate in the program.

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At an enforcement meeting Friday afternoon, county officials and service providers laid out realities and discussed solutions on how to engage the hard-to-reach, hard-to-police homeless.

At one point, Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim and the man who captained Friday’s get together, was asked what the county would do if the homeless refused to take up occupancy at Village 9 — a planned long-term housing project for homeless located off Kealakehe Parkway.

His response, in so many words, was that the county would force participation by whatever means it could cultivate. But he admitted it would take some creativity.

“We’re all struggling to figure out what the answers are,” he said.

Turning to coercion won’t be as easily done as said considering enforcement strategies to prevent rampant homeless recidivism — particularly in the areas of trespassing, illegal camping and habitual drug use — are almost as handcuffed as the violators against whom they’re implemented.

The difference is the cuffs come off most arrested homeless after a short time, while enforcement freedoms are often much harder and slower to come by.

And Kona’s homeless population hasn’t proven amenable to traditional forms of coercion. Kim cleared illegal campers out of old Old Airport Park last summer. Maurice Messina, deputy director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation, said now that security personnel aren’t patrolling there every evening, several squatters have returned.

“Homeless (are) our No. 1 problem,” he said.

On Monday, asked what she thought about the county’s position of forcing participation in its programs and housing projects, a homeless woman who asked to be identified as Crystal offered a blunt response.

“I’d like to see them (expletive) try,” she said.

Enforcement status

Police can enforce “aggressive panhandling,” but the term is somewhat ambiguous. Regular panhandling is not against the law on Hawaii Island.

Authorities can also move someone off a walkway for sidewalk obstruction, but the county has no sit/lie laws like those Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently expanded to include two extra thoroughfares in Honolulu.

They can write citations for trespassing to those who camp out illegally in parks after hours, though homeless individuals have the same rights to frequent public spaces during normal hours as any other citizen. And, of course, illegal drugs will earn anyone a trip to county jail.

First Deputy Prosecutor Dale Ross explained at Friday’s meeting, however, that most homeless tend to commit minor offenses. They’re typically held for a short time and then released. Trespassing and drug issues persist.

Police at the meeting said even when homeless perhaps should be incarcerated longer, over-crowding at holding facilities tends to expedite the return of homeless recidivists to the streets, as authorities prioritize keeping violent offenders behind bars above transient troublemakers.

Best way forward

The most viable and potentially successful solution is the development of a community court program, Ross said. The county applied for a grant to start one but was turned away. Oahu, though, did receive a grant along with funding from the state and began its program in January of 2017.

Dubbed the Community Outreach Court program, Oahu’s prosecuting attorney, public defenders office and the Hawaii Judiciary use the court to clear case backlogs involving non-violent offenders. Many involved are homeless individuals who are paired with counselors and service providers to receive the help they need to break the crime cycle.

According to the state’s judiciary website, 21 offenders took part in the program during its first five months. As of late June of 2017, 15 of the 21 had completed sentences by way of community service. Three found employment, four made their way to transitional housing and one found permanent housing.

Ross said Hawaii County hasn’t given up on the idea of a multi-jurisdictional court with authority in both criminal and civil matters as well as the power to mandate participation in various rehabilitation programs that would start through assessment centers like the one planned for the permanent build out of Village 9.

People must be arrested before mandates that they take medication can be enforced. Ross said a community court provides an umbrella to talk about people’s confidential information, which removes an important obstacle to forcing non-violent homeless offenders into treatment.

“It’s not right a mentally ill person has to be arrested to take their meds,” Ross said.

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura has introduced a resolution for a community court in the districts of Puna and Ka‘u. Ross said the Hawaii Judiciary is set to consider it but told meeting attendees they shouldn’t expect it to be realized anytime soon.

Funding would come from the Legislature and if successful and affordable enough, the program could expand to Hilo and Kona, Ross added.

Some meeting attendees pointed out that a case management component for monitoring purposes would also be necessary, which may require additional legislation.

In the meantime

The primary concern over a community court solution is time. Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said her office frequently fields calls about visitors avoiding downtown because of the brazen behaviors of a strong homeless contingent.

And despite encouraging Point-In-Time-Count numbers showing homelessness has declined on Hawaii Island in each of the last two years, pre-homelessness preventive strategies are falling short while many already on the streets aren’t interested in help.

HOPE Services CEO Brandee Menino said 664 single individuals in Hawaii County are currently registered in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Only 113 of them have expressed interest in housing solutions.

She added that last year, 800 new people entered the system, many of them locals.

“They’re entering the system faster than we can get them out,” Menino said.

She explained that despite popular perception, 67 percent of the homeless the HMIS tracks have lived in Hawaii more than 20 years.

Considering those numbers, rental assistance programs are crucial. Hawaii Island requires participants pay 30 percent of the rent while program funding covers the rest.

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But more housing is necessary to make the program effective for a homeless population heavily comprised of Hawaii Island’s sons and daughters.

The county has $1 million annually at it’s disposal but leaves roughly half of it on the table every year due to a lack of qualified participants, Menino said. In other words, rental assistance isn’t of use to people who’ve already lost their homes.