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Trying to help the homeless

Seven years ago, this newspaper ran a picture of a homeless man wearing a red and white Santa hat as he pushed a walker across Kamehameha Avenue.

In the caption, the man said he was a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War. He said it wasn’t easy being homeless and that he felt alone and unappreciated. When asked what he would like for Christmas, he said he could go for a nice bubble bath.

We learned later that one of our readers tracked the man down and paid for a room at a Kahului hotel so he could have that luxurious soak. They provided a bottle of bubbles and other goodies to make it a memorable holiday experience.

The generous outreach is a small example of the lengths Maui citizens and organizations go to help unsheltered people on this island. Dedicated nonprofits provide assistance that ranges from food, toiletries, laundry service and showers to voter registration, transportation and help accessing counseling and mental health services.

Maui County and the State of Hawaii have focused on a housing first approach. The idea is to get unsheltered people into housing where they can stabilize their lives. Once housed, odds improve they will be able to overcome other challenges they face.

Since February, Maui County’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns Homeless Division has helped 3,061 individuals access housing services. A total of 1,599 got permanent housing.

But there remain a visible few who either cannot comply with the rules or are not ready for lifestyle change. Mental health and substance abuse issues often cause people to shun services.

Maui County Council Member Tasha Kama introduced a bill this week intended to nudge these folks into housing by temporarily making it a crime to provide them with food or money on county property without also providing access to wraparound services. The bill drew a “firestorm” of negative reaction and was killed by the council in a unanimous, 9-0, vote.

Kama says the bill was perceived as punitive and that turned people off. There were also questions about its legality and domino effects.

“I was after a solution to the homeless issue,” Kama said Thursday. “I never meant to create a firestorm, but at least we’re talking about it. I got a lot of emails and phone calls. They’re mad, but once we start talking we realize we’re all on the same team.

“We want to offer more for people. We want people’s lives to be better, we want them to know what its like to have warm bedding and a nice warm shower.”

Kama said she is inviting stakeholders to share their ideas at a meeting scheduled for Thanksgiving week.

“We can do this,” she said. “That’s my hope.”

Maui’s homeless challenge is nuanced and includes many moving parts. The goal may be to help everyone, but as Kama found out, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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