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Oahu's Homeless On The Move

C H River street clean.jpg
Noe Tanigawa
Lisa and Richard of Lisa's consignment are relieved not to have the stone wall crew across river Street these days. Lisa worked on her windows while a city operator powerwashed the sidewalk.

Tuesday morning in Chinatown, City workers were power washing the sidewalks and a merchant was polishing her windows on River Street.

"Oh it's so much better," Janice "J.J." Owens said. Owens lives in a storefront on Pauahi street just off River Street. The 10 to 15 campers on the stone wall above the river, Nu‘uanu Stream to be exact, have been gone about 3 weeks.

"It is so much better," Owens said. "I'm not walking down that way seeing people smoking ice, laying there, with sores on them, laying there naked. All of that was terrible."

The Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center has been working in Chinatown for years, and is now expanding wound care and other services to the North Shore, Leeward Coast and Central Oahu. Coordinator Mono Ah Nee-Bahn was out with the crew dispensing masks, band aids, sanitizing gel, band aids. tending to wounds, and offering other services this week. He says things have changed on the streets.

homeless ticket.jpg
Noe Tanigawa
Police presence is up in Chinatown and tickets are proliferating among the homeless. JC had two tickets folded in the breast pocket of his tattered polo shirt. If he misses his court date, there will be a warrant for his arrest.

"A lot more police enforcement," Ah Nee-Bahn concurred. "That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of us finding our clients, and the people we need to get access to, they have been pushed out or redistributed."

Ah Nee-Bahn says he doesn't know where they go. City officials say these "clean ups" are in response to community complaints. They will continue despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations against disturbing homeless encampments. The American Civil Liberties Union in Hawai‘i has recently raised objections to the City's actions.

"I have noticed an increase in enforcements in general whether it's in Chinatown or Mo‘ili‘ili or Windward side, it's happening," Castro Masaniai, Outreach Program Manager at the Institute for Human Services, said. "It does seem a little counterproductive to what we're trying to do."

Masaniai said they can't find people for appointments, important papers are lost, and, worst of all, social workers get confused with enforcement officers.

If people can't stay where they are, is there shelter for them? Massaniai said HPD's tent facility, the POST, is the most likely place with an opening these days.

IHS runs the largest homeless shelters on O‘ahu, including separate facilities in ‘Iwilei for men, women and families.

"We have kind of put a pause on new intakes for a moment at our men's shelter," Jill Wright, IHS director of community relations, said.

She knows the impact this has on shelter availability. Wright said keeping safe shelter space available has been a continual balancing act.

"We did have a couple of positives so we were testing other people to make sure that it hasn't spread before we let new people in," Wright said.

Meanwhile, with a record amount of federal dollars available though Section 8 and the Housing Now program, housing placements are going at a quick clip.

"We are seeing more movement," Wright said. "We are seeing faster movement. Both from shelter into housing and sometimes straight from the streets into housing."

Partners in Care, O‘ahu's homeless care continuum, has been nurturing partnerships with landlords for years on O‘ahu. Recently, a couple more key landlords joined the effort to put federal housing dollars to work.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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