By NANCY COOK LAUER
Kona is not just a haven for Hawaii vacationers. It’s also becoming a top destination for international backpackers who add their ranks to the homeless, straining social services and generating complaints from residents and area businesses.
An increase in homeless, especially along Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona, has captured the attention of both the County Council and the Police Commission. While the area still has the traditional resident homeless who have become familiar faces to the police, the new influx is a different category, Assistant Chief Paul Kealoha told the Police Commission on Friday.
“They’re done with college, and they’re in transition,” Kealoha said. “They’re living out of a backpack. … They move on. They’re just doing their world tour.”
Kealoha said Kailua-Kona is listed as one of the top 10 destinations for the backpackers on Google searches of services.
Commissioner John M. Bertsch said he’s seen some of the backpackers panhandling at intersections, carrying signs such as “too cute to be broke.” He said most seem to be
healthy and young, but from other countries, so employment is probably not an option for them.
Commissioner Carol Ignacio, who is involved in a host of social service organizations, said the backpackers put the organizations in a “quandary” because they don’t want the traditional help, nor do they want to be housed. They generally want food, however.
“They’re here to panhandle and live until the next day,” Ignacio said, adding the group doesn’t want to be considered homeless. “These individuals aren’t the typical homeless, but they all get painted with the same brush.”
The County Council has also gotten into the act, unanimously passing a resolution earlier this month urging Mayor Billy Kenoi to help find a solution.
Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, who sponsored the resolution, said he, members of Kenoi’s administration, police and social service representatives plan a meeting next week, to try to formulate a workable handful of goals to address the problem.
The unsheltered chronic homeless population in Hawaii County increased 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.
While being homeless isn’t a crime, panhandling is. Kanuha wonders if the panhandling laws can be strengthened or loitering laws improved in certain areas.
“I’ve been getting so many phone calls from constituents about this dire situation,” Kanuha said Friday. “It’s getting to a critical point now.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.