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Eric Ramaila lives under a plastic tarp on the sidewalk across the street from the $350 million Hawai’i Convention Center at the gateway to Waikiki, the state’s largest generator of tourism revenue.
Ramaila recycles cans for money and says one day he’ll sell the urine that he stores in a commercial-size jar for bigger bucks. He doesn’t want to go to a shelter because it would curtail his business plan.
“I keep topping it off,” Ramaila said, pointing to his jar, which is filled to the brim with his urine. “You can make money off (excrement) and pee. I save it.”
Passers-by, some of them tourists, walk out of the way or into the street to avoid getting too close to Ramaila and about 12 other homeless campers who are blocking sidewalk access and loitering in the convention center promenade. Others, who come to Hawaii for the sun, sand and surf, are so dumbfounded by the Hooverville-style shantytown that once they get a safe distance they pull out a camera and snap a few photos.
“We’ve got a five-alarm fire right now in Waikiki,” said City Councilman Stanley Chang. Homelessness has grown into the No. 1 tourist complaint made to the Waikiki police substation and the No. 2 residential complaint behind traffic, he said.
Chang said Waikiki tourism, which is carrying the state’s economy, is at risk. Efforts to curtail homelessness in Waikiki are not working and have pushed the problem into places where homelessness did not exist before, he added.
But Chang said last week that the good news is the city’s sale of affordable housing projects is expected to net millions, which could be used to turn the tide in the island’s battle to manage homelessness. He is proposing that the city spend $77 million on housing and homeless solutions, including building places of refuge, or tent cities, for Oahu’s homeless.
Chang’s concept, which is rooted in ancient Hawaiian safe zones called “puuhonua,” would provide no-frills, hassle-free housing for homeless people who have not had success in traditional housing or shelters. Round-the-clock security and access to social services would be provided.
“Some homeless people have pets, mental issues, drug issues or other challenges that make them poor candidates for the options out there,” Chang said. “This is a place where they could be in a safe space and live their lives with dignity.”
He said his staff is working to identify city-owned properties where a tent city could be built.
“Sand Island is an area that has come up for years,” Chang said. “It should be part of the discussion, but I think that we should look everywhere on the island.”
Both the allocation of city resources and the idea are controversial.
By Chang’s calculations the city stands to net $61 million from the sale of its projects and has another $16 million in an Affordable Housing Fund from property taxes that has been sitting unused for years. And, he said, the new Grant to Need Fund, which also comes from property taxes, could generate millions in annual operational expenses.
But city officials calculate that the money actually available for homeless solutions is about half of what Chang wants.
About $35 million in Community Development Block Grant money could fund homeless programs, but only if that use was approved by a CDBG review committee, said Pamela Witty-Oakland, director of the city Department of Community Services.
About $26 million of the unrestricted funding that Chang wants for homeless solutions has been earmarked by the administration as a contingent liability for retirees’ health care, say city officials, who add that there is only $4.6 million of unappropriated money in the Affordable Housing Fund.
Still, Chang is urging his fellow Council members, who have the final say on the budget, to put big money into homeless solutions.
“We need enough money for a game-changer. We’ve been involved in incremental solutions like 100,000 Homes, Housing First and similar programs,” Chang said. “What I’ve learned through all of this is that the number of calls and complaints have not gone down. They’ve increased. All efforts are great, but they haven’t made the issue go away.”
Waikiki Neighborhood Chairman Bob Finley said he doesn’t know whether tent cities are the answer, but added that the concept should be explored along with other approaches.
“The numbers of homeless living on the streets, beaches, parks and other public places in Waikiki has reached epidemic proportions,” Finley said. “Making this situation worse is the number of children that are a combination of runaway kids and homeless family members that are included in the mix of people living on our streets.”
Finley said he gets constant emails from visitors complaining about being harassed by panhandlers or not being able to use the pavilions, the beach or the parks.
Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, said in addition to complaints about homelessness in the usual places like Waikiki, Chinatown, the Leeward Coast and the North Shore, she’s been getting reports from Hawaii Kai, Moiliili and Manoa.
“They are going everywhere,” Mitchell said. “No one is untouched.”
Chang said such concerns should be an urgent call to action.
“We have the money so we need to do something,” he said.
Witty-Oakland said Mayor Kirk Caldwell is open to considering Chang’s proposal. “We are vetting out all possibilities for a comprehensive solution.”
Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the visitor industry is also involved in the brainstorming.
“Stanley’s idea is one of many that we have to work through,” McCartney said. “What I’m happy about is that we have a state homeless coordinator, a mayor and Council and legislators all working together. We have hope that the next round of discussions is more than just talk. We have resources to help us.”
On Thursday, City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga introduced Resolution 13-055, directing the city to work with its state, federal and community counterparts to form an immediate action plan that addresses the public health and safety issues of homelessness.
On Friday, a joint Council committee invited homeless service providers and strategists and members of the community to bring their ideas to the table. Suggestions included stepping up enforcement, funding more rental subsidies, and providing more outreach and mental health and substance abuse services.
More money also could be put into Housing First programs, which move people into permanent supportive housing. While tent cities were not discussed at the meeting, Chang envisions that they will be part of future discussions.
State Housing Coordinator Colin Kippen and Mitchell of the IHS said they are excited by the possibility of additional funding for homeless solutions, but they don’t think tent cities should be an option.
Kippen said the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness conducted a study on campsites and concluded that it’s not a good idea to allow homeless there.
“What ends up happening is that a temporary situation becomes permanent,” Kippen said. “We are more interested in getting people off the streets and into permanent housing.”
Mitchell said other municipalities that have experimented with tent cities inevitably took them down.
“In Fort Lauderdale (Florida), they set up a tent city and the criminal element came in and took it over,” she said.
Mitchell said providing services to homeless people is challenging if they don’t have a roof over their head. She’s also not sure that Oahu’s homeless population would readily leave Waikiki or other neighborhoods where they have established roots.
On any given night, IHS has about 20 vacant beds at its shelter for women and families and about 50 vacancies at its men’s shelter. Mitchell attributes the vacancies to the lack of inclement weather on Oahu, shelter locations, rules such as a ban on pets, drugs and alcohol, and a zero-tolerance policy on violence.
“I would be interested in a tent city if it was convenient in all aspects,” said Marcelo Bitanga, a 54-year-old man who has been homeless off and on for 30 years and has spent the past year living on the streets and sidewalks of Waikiki. “I like to stay by the recycling center because it’s easy.”
Hard-core recyclers can make $40 or $50 a day in Waikiki picking up cans and turning them in for rebates, Bitanga said. People also get frequent handouts in the tourist district, he said.
He recommends that the city buy the vacant lot across from the convention center and put a tent city there.
Chang said he welcomes feedback and looks forward to continuing discussions with providers, nonprofits and the community at large.
“I’m not wedded to one vision or another, but I will say this, one of the rules that I’ve lived by is never to shoot down a dumb idea unless you have a better alternative,” he said. “I’ve yet to hear anything that will make a bigger difference. I’m fighting for $77 million and I’d like to see others come to the table.” ___