LIHU‘E — Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste unveiled his new plan to combat homelessness on Kaua‘i Wednesday, outlining a comprehensive plan to help the homeless in Kaua‘i’s county parks.
A notice, which was passed out to campers at Kaua‘i’s county parks last week, stating county authorities would be cracking down on illegal camping at the parks, was just the first step in the plan, he said.
“We’re still working over the next two-and-a-half weeks on finding places for them,” said Baptiste in an interview in his office Wednesday evening. “I’m hoping that the number of people without options at the end will be minimal.”
But, Baptiste said, the underlying causes of homelessness on Kaua‘i are still there, waiting to snare a family and push them onto Kaua‘i’s beaches.
“The fact remains that most of us could be a paycheck away from homelessness,” said Baptiste. “There are deep, deep issues. We can’t just talk about it. It’s not an easy process. But it’s a process that has to happen.”
The homeless “are not nameless entities; some of (them) we have grown up with. It tears my heart to see what has happened to them. We have to figure out how to get them help.”
And this plan, he said, starts with the removal of illegal campers from county parks.
“Since I began (the Ka Lei O Kaua‘i meetings and before), there have been many concerns from the public that they do not feel safe in the parks,” said the mayor. “We are making sure the parks are safe so the public can enjoy the recreational resources we have.”
While Mayor Baptiste said he believes that many of the campers are not doing illegal things and are just “down on their luck, peripheral activities go on that are hurting other people,” such as drug use, under-age drinking, and other crimes do exist at the beach parks.
“I’m not going to pretend the problem isn’t there, because it’s there.
“We are clearing the parks to make them safe and to deal with (the homeless) in a humane and equitable manner and not hide from it, not just displace them from one spot to another,” he said.
He added that the problem is that each individual case of those living in the beach parks is different. And the county needs to separate those with problems from those creating problems.
Homelessness does not happen overnight, the mayor said. “It’s a combination of many variables.”
“The problem is we don’t have a clear definition of who should be there,” camping in the county parks, he said.
“The public does not feel safe in county parks. They tend to associate the peripheral element with the homeless and that is not the case,” said the mayor.
And, he said, the county has been working with the homeless individually to make sure they can find housing, either with relatives, friends, community groups, or off-island, not just for now, but in the long-term.
“We are making a commitment to create long-term solutions,” Baptiste said.
Some of these solutions include: creating more affordable housing by expanding Kalepa Village, Pa‘anau complex, and creating new affordable housing on the north shore.
“We do have a need for an emergency shelter” as well, and the mayor said he is working with the Continuum Care Committee, a conglomeration of numerous groups, including Kaua‘i Economic Opportunity, to secure funding for the shelter.
Linda Sugita, the chairman for the CCC, said the organization “is a consortium of different agencies and individuals who are concerned about homelessness on Kaua‘i.”
“Our mayor has been very supportive of our emergency shelter,” she said. “He is the first mayor to really try to develop a homeless shelter here.”
“In the past six to eight months, we’ve been watching, working. The hardest part is finding something that’s fair,” said the mayor. “We have been trying to solve a multitude of problems that are happening at the park simultaneously.”
“Opportunities are great to get funds for” the emergency shelter, said Baptiste, but that any project would take time.
“We feel that we have a viable alternative for the long run. We are working on what, on an interim basis, we can do,” he added.
“I’ve spent many a sleepless night worrying about what to do, short and long term,” he said, but the homeless problem cannot go on as it is.
“Just to accept it, to let it continue, it allows the peripheral things” to get worse, said Baptiste. “We are trying to take a compassionate look at it.”
Staff Writer Tom Finnegan may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 226).