Honolulu calls its new 'homeless court' a success story

By Liz Enbysk, Smart Cities Council

Since the beginning of this year, Honolulu has managed to get more than 250 homeless defendants into services — and several even into housing. The success if the product of the product of the Community Outreach Court as it's officially called – 'homeless court' unofficially.

The program is the brainchild of Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, Oahu Public Defender Jack Tonaki and Hawaii Supreme Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald. The three spent a year planning the court before it opened for business in January.

The first cases the court heard were deemed minor -- or so-called nuisance cases. And they were settled not with the usual fines or jail time but with community service instead.

The court's aim is to hold people accountable, reduce backlogs in the courts and the public defender’s office and provide an opportunity for individuals to receive services to help them move forward in their lives.

An article in the Star Advertiser tells the story of a man who spent nearly 30 years on the streets. He had 33 charges against him dating back to 2005 -- infractions, bench warrants and other nonviolent offenses. He appeared in Community Outreach Court, was sentenced to four hours of community service at the city zoo, which he completed in March.

But his story doesn't end there.

"This is a success story worth talking about," Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said in a statement. "Not only were numerous cases and warrants cleared from the judiciary calendar, this gentleman was able to get into a home with the help of a non-profit working with Community Outreach Court."

In its first five months, the Star Advertiser reports 21 defendants -- accounting for 268 cases -- have appeared in the court. In addition to the man who got into his first permanent home in 30 years, another three have gotten into transitional housing and others have connected with service providers who work with the court.

Here are more recent examples of how jurisdictions are trying to connect homeless populations with services:

  • St. Louis County, Minnesota launches a 'Text Homeless' pilot this week that encourages people who are homeless or on the brink of becoming so to send a text. They go through a quick series of yes and no questions that allow coordinators to arrange an in-person screening intended to help the person with transitional housing. "We're trying to expand our reach to a larger area and a younger audience," Rory Strange, head of the Lakes United Way, told the Duluth News Tribune. Strange oversees the agency's 211 call center that is the entry point for connecting people who are homeless with services that can help them.


  • Denver is providing lockers for homeless residents to store their personal belongings safely. The two pilot programs will add 210 storage lockers -- 10 large item storage units are already in place and another 200 medium and small units will be available in June. “A person living without a home currently has few options to safely store their personal belongings,” Erik Soliván, Director of the Denver Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) said. “Those experiencing homelessness have told us that not having a place where they can safely store their belongings can be barrier to them obtaining a good job, shelter at night and good health. We listened, and we’re bringing that barrier down.” Denver Public Works will administer the program. Individuals must provide a shelter ID and be able to demonstrate their engagement in workforce training, employment, health services or shelter to use a locker.


  • Los Angeles pilot uses shipping containers and private equity to house the homeless. The project by Flyaway Homes will create modular structures from the refurbished shipping containers at a site on LA's Corden Avenue. “The whole concept is, it’s a lot easier when you use private capital. You don’t have the same regulations,” Kevin Hirai, FlyawayHomes COO told the The Daily Breeze. “Affordable housing developers have a lot more challenges on their plate than we do.” The project, which broke ground earlier this month, will include eight four-bedroom units, each with one bathroom, as well as a unit for the building manager. The units are intended to be affordable for clients of The People Concern, which will provide supportive services at the site. Shipping containers have also been used to house homeless veterans in Orange County.


Liz Enbysk is editor of the Smart Cities Council’s Compassionate Cities initiative, which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty.



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