(Star Advertiser) Chinatown homeless: Police and citizens join forces

  • Video by Craig T. Kojima, Dennis Oda and Bruce Asato / ckojima@staradvertiser.com, doda@staradvertiser.com and basato@staradvertiser.com

    An Institute for Human Services survey found that 172 people were homeless in Chinatown throughout 2018. Residents, merchants and police in Honolulu’s historic Chinatown district are grappling with a growing homeless population.

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In the summer of 2015, one of America’s largest homeless encampments sprung up in plain site around Kakaako Waterfront Park where Honolulu police and state sheriff’s deputies found themselves chasing more than 300 homeless people between city streets, state parks and privately owned parcels of land.

Among all of the finger-pointing over jurisdiction, Honolulu Police Department Sgt. Deric Valoroso found an effective way to help some of Kakaako’s homeless by informally teaming up with social workers who had answers to many of their needs.


“It worked,” Valoroso said.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Dan Nakaso spent three weeks in Chinatown — from the early hours to late at night — interviewing business owners, police, homeless people, residents, tourists and government officials about homelessness in the historic district.Thursday: What’s next for Chinatown?

Now two programs are underway in Chinatown and other parts of the urban core that were born from the Kakaako experience: H.E.L.P. Honolulu, which stand for “Health Efficiency and Long-term Partnerships;” and LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.

The programs pair up social workers from 30 different organizations with Honolulu police (H.E.L.P.) and state sheriff’s deputies (LEAD).

The idea is to take homeless people who are at risk for a citation or low-level arrest — such as violations of the city’s “sit-lie” ban, for example — and offer them immediate assistance through a social service agency.

“Law enforcement is the portal of entry,” said Heather Lusk, executive director of the Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center that helps run both LEAD and H.E.L.P. Honolulu. “Anyone with violence is excluded, any sexual offenses are excluded.”

Homeless people with outstanding warrants are referred to Honolulu’s Community Outreach Court, which waives sometimes dozens of arrests, citations and warrants for homeless people who also agree to work with social service agencies.

The city Prosecutor’s office is still figuring out what kind of offenses will be dismissed through H.E.L.P. Honolulu. But since it began on July 1, LEAD is already showing signs of success, Lusk said.

Some 50 homeless people have been enrolled so far following encounters with either HPD or sheriff’s deputies, Lusk said.

“Twenty are now sheltered, four completed substance abuse treatment and for one person it’s the first time they’ve been sober in 25 years,” Lusk said. “Over 30 needed to get their IDs. At least 10 people needed legal help, such as meeting with their probation officers before going to court. We’ve had a couple reunified with their children.”

One homeless man in Iwilei had daily contact with deputies until they came back with social service workers as their partners.

“He was one of our first-day clients,” Lusk said. “Four days ago he got sheltered for the first time in almost five years. We’re starting to see early results.”

HPD Capt. Mike Lambert, who oversees both programs, said the partnerships with social service agencies also have improved morale for beat officers because they now have a new tool.

“It’s a true partnership versus a referral system,” Lambert said. “We literally work hand in hand because we realized enforcement alone couldn’t do it.”

Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said both programs are “a way to prevent people from entering the system. Law enforcement has an additional tool so they (homeless violators) don’t actually get arrested or get a citation.”

Social workers working with law enforcement, “meet people where they’re at, get them transportation to shelter, get them to medical appointments, get them ID and get them substance abuse treatment,” Morishige said.

Honolulu police also have a new resource in the year-old Joint Outreach Center in the same building as the Chinatown HPD substation.

Officers have to make sure a suspect with a medical issue is cleared before booking them into the police cellblock, said Andy Mounthongdy, executive director of the Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui, also known as H4, which runs the JOC. But the wait at The Queen’s Medical Center can take up a full police shift, said Mounthongdy, whose time at the JOC is donated by Queen’s.

At the JOC, officers can have the suspect medically cleared in a fraction of the time, Mounthongdy said.

“Most times we get them in and out in an hour,” he said. “They (police) can then spend the rest of the time patrolling on the street. It’s a resource for the community, a benefit for the community.”

“It’s made a difference,” said HPD officer Elvin “Boom” Bumanglag.

Bumanglag and Valoroso walked through Chinatown on a recent Thursday morning with 10 senior citizens from the Chinatown Citizens Patrol who were outfitted with bright yellow T-shirts.

The Citizens Patrol represents another partnership with HPD to address homelessness at the street level, said Valoroso, who works out of Kukui Gardens in HPD’s Community Policing and Weed and Seed unit.

“They take pride in this area,” Valoroso said. “No matter, rain or shine, they come out.”

Every week the Citizens Patrol, joined by armed HPD officers, sends a clear message to homeless people causing problems in Chinatown, Valoroso said.

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, on scooter, chairwoman of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board No. 13, on patrol.

“It’s meant to say that the Citizens Patrol is here to be the eyes of the police,” he said, “and to take back our neighborhood.”



Number of social service organizations teaming up with Honolulu police officers and state sheriff’s deputies to offer services to homeless people in Chinatown


Number of homeless people since July enrolled in two law-enforment programs


Number of those 50 homeless people who have gotten into shelters

Source: Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center

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