Homeless in Hawaii

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Tourists do not expect to see homeless people in paradise. Thus Honolulu is cracking down on a growing crisis that’s bad for business, and that’s changing how ministry happens for the city’s Episcopal congregations.

Day in and day out, city employees remove homeless encampments from sidewalks near world-famous beaches and other popular tourist areas. They’re enforcing new restrictions, including a “sit-lie ordinance” that bans sitting or reclining on sidewalks. Faith groups and nonprofit agencies watch with mixed feelings as people are displaced and dispersed, often ending up on churches’ doorsteps downtown.

“It looks terrible, I admit, when you have dump trucks taking away belongings,” said Kimo Carvalho, community relations director for the Institute for Human Services, which works to move Hawaii’s homeless into housing. “But you need to break up that culture. You can’t just enable people to keep building structures on the sidewalks that people have to walk on.”

Honolulu is responding to an acute situation driven by a confluence of factors, from sky-high rents to a methamphetamine epidemic. With 18,000 homeless across eight islands, Hawaii has the largest homeless population per capita in the United States. Most live on densely populated Oahu, where a government count in April 2015 identified a 35 percent increase in the homeless population in six years.

Honolulu’s crackdown comes as cities nationwide pass new laws that advocates see as making homelessness a crime. Between 2011 and 2014, 24 cities passed new laws prohibiting all camping, while another 15 outlawed vagrancy and loitering, according to data from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Nine made begging illegal within city limits.

Now the greater Honolulu faith community, which includes 14 Episcopal congregations, is responding — not only to homelessness, but also to fallout from the city’s response. Church initiatives vary widely as the faithful vie to seize ministry opportunities, protect property, and shape public policy.

“We have a huge crisis here with homelessness,” said the Rev. David Gierlach, rector of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Honolulu. “It’s not only a matter of folks with mental challenges and drug and alcohol issues. There are a significant number of intact families that are without houses here.”

Located a few blocks from downtown, St. Elizabeth’s has become a hive of outreach in the wake of the city’s two-year crackdown. The congregation now offers 24/7 access to free cold showers and toilets. A free hot breakfast in the parish hall draws 75 homeless people on Saturday mornings. Hungry souls line up daily outside St. Elizabeth’s newly expanded pantry, which stocks supplies from a local food bank.

The new, multipronged outreach was needed at St. Elizabeth’s as soon as the sit-lie ordinance took effect, Gierlach said.

“They initially targeted people in Waikiki [Beach], which is naturally the business center of our economy,” Gierlach said. “They almost immediately passed the same ordinance for the financial district downtown and Chinatown. So we had a surge of folks coming into our area, and that’s what generated our need to kind of expand what we were doing.”

Conditions have inspired St. Elizabeth’s to embrace ministry innovations. With $800 per month from the church’s mission budget, a new laundry program called “Laundry Aloha” enables 80 homeless people to run two large loads per month. Those living in vehicles are allowed to park on church grounds overnight. A converted cargo ship container, now a fixture on church grounds, provides one family with housing for up to three months while they await a shelter vacancy. Container residents have electric power and use bathrooms at the church.

But the influx of homeless has also led to problems for downtown congregations. The Cathedral of St. Andrew, a gift of Queen Victoria in 1862, is on the National Register of Historic Places and keeps its doors open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate travelers on self-guided tours. A homeless man was arrested April 25 when security caught him in the nave tearing out wires from the sound system, and damaging microphones and furniture.

“I’m not definite that he was in his right mind,” said property manager Charmaine Ito. “We’re right downtown. So there are a lot of homeless, a lot of people that are not mentally stable, that are hanging around downtown.”

On May 11, cathedral staff discovered two stained-glass windows had been broken and canceled one Evensong service as a result. No one has been charged in the stained-glass incident, and there is no indication yet whether homelessness was a factor.

The church is now installing two new outdoor security cameras to monitor the property. Incidents have been on the rise in the last two years, Ito said.

“We’ve had homeless taking a bath in our fountain, we’ve had homeless using the bathroom in our fountain, we’ve had homeless using the bathroom on our property,” Ito said. “There have been many different incidents.”

Some congregations are tackling the crisis by giving to agencies focused on homelessness. St. Peter’s Church in downtown Honolulu, for instance, donates to IHS, which partners with St. Elizabeth’s and other organizations. St. Elizabeth’s acts as a daytime drop-in center and draws many Micronesians, who have been promised free services as war reparations, HIS’s Carvalho said. The outreach gives IHS a venue to connect, steer Micronesians to social services, and move them into shelters and permanent housing.

Churches play an essential role in homeless outreach, Carvalho said, and each has a distinct niche. But what churches do is not always helpful.

 Well-meaning volunteers from churches sometimes detract from the community’s long-term goal of ending homelessness, he said. For example, they go into homeless encampments, play music, and hand out donations from furniture to toys. They aim to show compassion, he said, but they thwart the process of moving homeless people into shelter and housing.

“They feel they’ve done something good, but in reality they’re preventing people from taking action,” Carvalho said. “Our homeless outreach team is saying, C’mon, we got clothing and we got food and we got housing, but these guys on the streets keep saying, Well, we’ve got all that, too, because the community keeps giving it to us. So we can just stay on the streets and be comfortable.”

To help educate congregations on what helps, IHS convened a faith summit on homelessness in April. More than 50 church groups sent delegates who learned how to refer people on the streets to the services they need.

Congregations are joining coalitions to lobby city and state governments on the homelessness crisis. But here again, not all of what they do is helpful, Carvalho said. Too often, demonstrations are not attached to a concrete, actionable agenda item, he said.

“It builds public fatigue amongst an already fatigued problem,” Carvalho said. “A lot of people are burned out. … These are real people with real problems. And it’s such a challenge to deal with these exacerbated mental health, substance abuse, housing system, and government bureaucracy problems. The last thing we need is for somebody to be yelling for no reason. Yell for progress.”

Gierlach believes his community organizing is making progress. His said his group’s tactics have helped win new public funds for subsidized affordable housing, among other programs.

“The threat behind our political action in this legislative session was: If you folks don’t do something substantive this year, we’re going to start a tent city in Waikiki and at the Capitol,” Gierlach said. “‘And we’ll organize the homeless. And we’ll bring them to Waikiki and to the State Capitol and pitch their tents there until you pay attention.’ And I think that word moved some hearts and minds at the Capitol.”

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