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Giving thanks with a new path forward

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

As we reflect on Thanksgiving, the turkey, stuffing, gravy and, most important, fond memories with our loved ones, we have time to count our blessings and be grateful for the things we cherish most.

Unfortunately, many people in our community are struggling with the same things others take for granted, such as shelter.

Some people seek shelter along our roads, in our public parks and open spaces and on private property. They assemble in camps consisting of homemade structures and vehicles that may or may not run. As camps grow, this segment of our population becomes more and more visible.

What may not be as visible are the impacts on surrounding areas. The gathering of unsheltered individuals, some of whom have mental-health or substance-abuse issues, creates environments with unsafe, illegal or socially unacceptable activity such as drug use and public defecation.

These impacts are felt by business owners, employees and customers who feel unsafe when the street, sidewalk and adjacent areas are cluttered with shopping carts and makeshift communities.

Many businesses have contacted my office to describe an awful daily routine of having to disinfect their front doors and walkways after unsheltered individuals have used those areas as a toilet. Some business owners have had to call police when unsheltered individuals have refused to leave their premises.

We all want to help. And, ideally, simply providing more housing for those in need would seem like a viable solution. But it’s not that easy. Forcing unsheltered individuals into shelter they are not prepared for is not often successful.

Unsheltered individuals often cannot or will not accept help being offered. In some cases, the degree of mental illness or substance abuse is so severe they don’t recognize the gravity of their situation and believe their unsheltered state is normal. Some refuse to accept help because they would need to abandon anti-social or illicit behavior that has become their way of life.

The County of Maui and county-funded social-service agencies follow the Housing First program, driven by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Housing First is an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness to serve as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.

Homeless Hub, a web-based research library and information center, has reported: “In general, 30-35 percent of those experiencing homelessness, and up to 75 percent of women experiencing homelessness, have mental illnesses.”

I believe we need to work with our police department to enforce existing laws governing anti-social behavior. However, while giving a ticket to someone violating our laws is an appropriate response, the unsheltered do not have money to pay fines, and a mandated court appearance is not likely to provide a positive resolution.

At my Affordable Housing Committee meeting on Nov. 16, the committee heard from leaders of Oahu’s successful Community Outreach Court, including Judge Darolyn Lendio, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Tom, Deputy Public Defender Antoinette Lilley and Intake/Case Coordinator Jenalyn Camara. They described how the Community Outreach Court takes a cooperative approach to violations by unsheltered individuals by bringing the court to the community.

The goal isn’t punishment but rather getting help for the unsheltered so they can be sheltered. The court replaces fines with community service and can address a long history of violations in a single discussion with the participant. Participants are not treated as violators or defendants but partners in the process of addressing their past behavior.

I see Community Outreach Court as a viable solution for positive change, and I am committed to working with the mayor and the state judiciary to determine how we can bring this program to Maui County. The time has come to act in our fight against homelessness and take a bold step with a program that has shown proven results for positive change.

* Tasha Kama is chair of the Affordable Housing Committee. She holds the council seat for the Kahului residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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