Denby Fawcett: We have become numb to the plight of the homeless

Opinion article badgeHawaii’s homeless problem is rarely discussed in the local news these days. As if the public had reached a détente with the chronic sleepers on the sidewalks and the illegal campers in the city parks.

Tents lining the once skewed sidewalks are now the norm. Sometimes the audience seems to have thrown up their hands in resignation saying, “It’s hopeless, too complicated to handle.”

“There’s numbness,” says Kathleen Rhodes-Miriam, a superintendent with the state’s adult mental health division. She has worked in the mental health field for 38 years, and has spent much of her time advocating for Hawaii’s most fragile and mentally ill, many of whom are homeless.

As she walks through Chinatown, she says she saw pedestrians gingerly avoid homeless people on the sidewalk, past people who were clearly suffering, as if they weren’t there.

Nearly three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, Miriam says even those providing mental health services appear worn out and emotionally drained.

It’s as if people want to stay in their own boxes. Not looking beyond themselves. It’s a phase we need to work through. “We have to pull together to help,” she says.

Chronic homelessness – the condition of individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems often in poor physical health – is a dilemma without an easy solution.

The Department of Lands and Natural Resources admitted defeat in a news release on Oct. 14, citing its doomed efforts to prevent vagabonds from taking over the urban parks it operates, specifically the Sand Island Recreation Area and the Diamond Head Monument.

“My heart goes out to these people regarding the social impacts, the issues they have gone through in their lives. We have created an eligible population who would rather camp along the shoreline or in the bush, than have the services and housing on offer. It has become a way of life,” he says. Curt Cottrell, director of DLNR’s Department of State Parks.

The Parks Department has allocated $200,000 this year to support the state Department of Transportation’s efforts to remove campers in parks, but Cottrell says that’s not close enough.

DLNR, in the press release that quoted Cottrell, made it clear that the agency’s mission is to run state parks for the use of the public, not for the use of the homeless, but says it’s broken. Clean-ups There is no effective way to permanently remove the homeless from public lands when they are consistently denied housing.

“In fact, many of the people who inhabited 30 different camps on Sand Island came from Kakaku, after the parks there were transferred to the City and County of Honolulu.”

Cottrell, director of state parks, compares the homeless situation to the difficulty of trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube: “It’s a huge effort to get every single color lined up and then to keep it in place before you start turning the cube, it just turns into a mess again.”

That’s a dramatic way of putting it. I’d say it’s more accurate to describe the homeless camps in certain parts of Oahu’s strongholds as routine, rather than places of chaos. Some of the areas where the homeless go about their day-to-day business include the edges of Waimanalo Beach Park, the docks across from the Honolulu Convention Center, as well as Sand Island and Diamond Head Island. Homeless people in those places refuse to move no matter how many times the city and state try to convince them.

Richard Palica Diamond Head Homeless Camp Homeless Column Denby Fawcett
Richard Palica has lived at Kuilei Cliffs Beach Park in Diamond Head for nearly 40 years. Denby Fawcett / Civil Beat / 2022

Richard Palika is the homeless camper I know who has lived at Kuilei Cliffs Beach Park in Diamond Head for nearly 40 years.

During that time, he was cited for trespassing by the police, countless orders were issued to ignore his citations and his campgrounds were washed away dozens of times by the city. Every time his camp at Diamond Head is dismantled and hauled to the trash can, social workers appear to offer him services and accommodation, which he refuses.

I asked Paleka on Saturday, as she did many times, if he never got tired of it and felt like accepting lodging. He told me, as he always does: “It’s already too late. I don’t know how to live in a house. I have to learn everything again.”

Paleka grew up in Waianae, where he was once one of the kids featured in a newspaper article about young girls and boys enjoying etiquette classes at Waianae Elementary School. Now he’s 57, he laughs that he feels like a 90-year-old. He is not homeless. Diamond Head is his home.

In an interview about his accomplishments during his eight years in office, Governor David Ige said his only real regret is that he wasn’t able to do more to help the chronically homeless.

“We’re working to improve mental health and addiction treatment services, and those types of programs, because we know that many of them struggle with mental illness or have addiction challenges,” he said. “And until you can treat those, it’s really hard for them to realize that they need help. And so we’re making progress.”

Egg points to the progress his department has made in finding shelter for homeless families.

The number of homeless families has fallen from 805 in 2016 to 376 in 2022 — a drop of 53%, Ige homelessness coordinator Scott Murishig said in an email.

The numbers are based on Hawaii time point counts, the annual tally mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development—far from a perfect count, Moreshig admits, but nonetheless showing trends over time.

Governor-elect Josh Green’s administration wrote to me in an email that Green will make it a “high priority” to get housing for the homeless, including chronic campers, in what he calls the “housing and healthcare” model.

“Housing someone significantly increases their health and well-being, lowers health care costs for the state by 43%-73%, and improves quality of life and life expectancy at the same time,” a department spokesperson said.

Green ran television ads during his campaign boasting of his success in housing the homeless. He promised if elected to reduce homelessness in Hawaii by 50% with his “10-point plan to end homelessness” as well as significantly reduce chronic homelessness by 2030.

It’s easy to be cynical after watching former state and city leaders pull off their own sweeping plans to end homelessness while watching homeless camps sprout and sprout into new locations.

Miriam says a lack of coordination even within the Ministry of Health itself has frustrated efforts in the past.

But some homelessness experts based in Akame, Hawaii believe that Green’s background as a physician has given him a deeper understanding of the mental demons that destabilize the chronically homeless.

“His heart is in the right place. He gets it. He’s aware of the mental health component of homeless treatment,” says Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, the largest and oldest homeless care agency.

Miriam of the state’s adult mental health department is also excited about Greene’s promise to sync up government and private agencies.

In the email, Green’s spokesperson said the administration intends to “break through the silos of the bureaucracy” — meaning to help state departments such as health, human services, and prisons that address homelessness to work in sync and better cooperate with the private non-profit agencies “who we rely on to provide support and assistance to whom They are in crisis.”

Miriam says a lack of coordination even within the Ministry of Health itself has frustrated efforts in the past.

“We have to pull together to help,” she says. everybody. even U.S.

A good first step would be when we go beyond a homeless person lying on the ground to think about the layers of complex problems that got them there and what we can do to give them the tools to help themselves.

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