By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Chronic homelessness in Hawaii County will be the topic Wednesday, when representatives from a multi-agency working group headed by county administration addresses the County Council on how best to cope with the growing problem.
Managing Director Wally Lau, who has spearheaded a working group that includes Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, County Prosecutor’s First Deputy Dale Ross and representatives from the Police Department and social service agencies, will address the council at its regular meeting in Hilo.
The public can comment on agenda items at 9:15 a.m. at council chambers, or by videoconference from the West Hawaii Civic Center, the Waimea council office or the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center.
The increase in the homeless population, especially along Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona, has captured the attention of both the County Council and the Police Commission.
The unsheltered chronic homeless population in Hawaii County rose 13.7 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to the state’s most recent point-in-time count.
Chronic homeless, who have substance abuse or mental or physical illness or disability and who have been homeless for at least a year or have had four homeless episodes in the past three years, comprise 43 percent of the county’s homeless, according to the study.
Kanuha had requested assistance from the administration after residents and business owners in his district asked for help. Several members of the public, however, in June disparaged his resolution asking the administration to help, saying the wording denigrated a group of people who either by choice, substance abuse or mental problems or just plain bad luck, landed on the street. Being homeless is not a crime, they said.
“It was never my intention to criminalize homelessness,” Kanuha responded at the time. “There’s a growing problem within our community and I don’t know if we’re doing anything about it.”
The council unanimously passed the resolution, with several council members saying there was no intention to stigmatize homeless, but rather to help them.
“This is a problem prevalent, not only on this island, but statewide and nationwide and it’s something that needs to be talked about,” said Council Chairman J Yoshimoto. “It’s not something that’s easy to talk about, but people need help.”
Kanuha said Friday he is working on several bills that will address panhandling, putting some teeth into the county’s current laws. While being homeless isn’t a crime, panhandling is.
“We need to tighten up a few of our panhandling laws, in order for us to enforce them,” Kanuha said. “I’m trying to make it so our local authorities know exactly what they can and cannot do. We need to make sure we get everyone to comment on it, talk about it and bring it up with the police and the different stakeholders.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.