Homeless become more visible even though population is down

Confronting Homelessness

The recent Point-in-Time Count shows that there has been a slight decrease in the homeless population on Maui as stated in the well-written, April 10 Maui News article found at www.mauinews.com/news/local-news/2019/04/homelessness-down-slightly-in-maui-county. Is this true? Are the homeless numbers actually decreasing on Maui? In my opinion, the answer is yes!

How do I know this? Well, there are many hardworking professionals on Maui who have made it their life’s mission to help the less fortunate, which includes the homeless. These professionals are the ones who are helping people move from homelessness into permanent homes and to shelters. The recent findings show that the number of people on the streets is going down and that more than before, people are seeking help and shelter.

I am often asked: If the numbers are going down then why does it look like more homeless are living on the streets? For various reasons, those living a houseless lifestyle are becoming more visible and living openly on the streets and sidewalks. Their open visibility makes it appear that there are more homeless, but in actuality, they are just more obvious. In recent days I’ve seen people who were previously living in the bush now living in public areas around town.

Housing agencies, County of Maui Homeless Program, Maui Police Department are constantly receiving complaints from the community in regard to homeless encampments and public safety concerns. They are all diligent in addressing each complaint quickly.

What you may not know is that even before calls are received, the coordination of a number of agencies and departments, which includes social service outreach workers, the Maui Police Department and Maui County Public Works, has already started.

It is to the benefit of the Maui community (the housed and unhoused alike) that each person starts the progression of moving into the safe environment of a shelter or home. So before anything else is done, housing services are offered to each individual in the encampments.

After that, things get a bit more difficult since some will accept help and then there are those who want to continue living as they are. These are the ones who will be moved on so that the area can be cleaned up for the safety of everyone.

I have seen this team of professionals in action; they are kind and respectful and it is obvious that their strongest desire is to help. They have a very difficult, thankless job, helping the homeless while keeping public land and sidewalks safe and accessible for everyone.

As my family recently discovered and I shared in last month’s column — which can be found at www.mauinews.com/opinion/columns/2019/03/consider-oahus-example-for-homeless-who-refuse-services–it is easier to resolve a trespassing issue on private land, but when it comes to roads, sidewalks and public land there are not enough clear legal lines for the police to follow so that we all can be safe.

When these encampments are cleaned, the ones refusing services are those who you are now seeing moving onto the streets. Many are dealing with addiction and/or mental illness issues. They are discovering that moving to public property makes it easier to live in one location for longer periods of time because of the lack of enforceable legislation on public land. This is where things need to change. The safety of a home is not only for their benefit; it is for the benefit of everyone in the community. When people are living on the sidewalk outside your door (be it your home or business), no one feels safe.

Please understand that I am and will always be an advocate for those who are victimized by homelessness. It is not, and should never be, illegal to be homeless and we need to help those who are homeless to find a home, but bad behavior and impeding on the rights of others is not OK and those who choose to do so need to be held accountable.

* Joyce Kawakami is a full-time volunteer, founder and CEO of Feed My Sheep Inc. As an active member of the Maui Homeless Alliance, she chairs the Awareness Committee. The alliance meets on the third Wednesday of each month at Maui Economic Opportunity, 99 Mahalani St. in Wailuku. To participate, call (808) 242-4900.