A new initiative by the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association hopes to alleviate downtown businesses’ homeless burden and make them safer for shoppers and workers alike.
The DIA announced in September the establishment of a safety coordinator who will liaise between businesses and the Police Department to intercede on the business’ behalf during engagements with trespassing homeless people.
Gregg Silva, a retired police officer who now serves as the safety coordinator, said the policy will make it easier to remove and possibly charge homeless people occupying private property.
“Business owners are sometimes hesitant to deal with homeless people because they’re worried about violence or damage,” Silva said.
However, because the sheltered alcoves in storefronts are the property of the business and not public property, business owners are the only ones authorized to remove trespassers from the premises. If a business owner is not present, Silva said, there is technically no way to prove the trespasser is not there legally.
By signing up for the DIA’s safety coordinator program, businesses can authorize Silva to operate on their behalf. Silva said he would be able to make regular sweeps of downtown businesses, accompanied by police officers, and remove loiterers and possibly charge them with trespassing.
Silva said his role will be limited to the regular sweeps, however, and will not respond to requests by business owners to address immediate issues.
As of last week, Silva said about five businesses have signed up, although he said he hopes more businesses join the program so as to not waste police resources on such a limited scope.
While the program will have an immediate effect on the homeless population in very specific parts of town, the program will not reduce homelessness on its own.
Robert Fujitake, Hilo community police officer, said the several homeless-related calls the Police Department receives daily cannot decrease unless the community gets involved.
“Other agencies need to get involved,” Fujitake said. “A lot of these cases involve mental health or drugs and arrests don’t cut it in those cases.”
Silva said the program may convince those apprehended to seek out homeless support agencies such as HOPE Services Hawaii.
“There’s nothing we can do, we can’t force them to go to HOPE Services,” Silva said. “But if they feel like they no longer belong, they might go themselves.”
Many businesses reported that, for the most part, homeless trespassers leave their haunts before business opens in the morning.
“We haven’t really had a big mess,” Crystal Robledo, employee at Bob’s Jewelers on Kamehameha Avenue, said before knocking on wood.
However, Robledo said, employees often have to clean detritus left by trespassers: cigarettes, tobacco, boxes and, on one occasion, a full-size mattress.
And while the storefront is brightly lit, the darker alley behind the store occasionally serves as an impromptu bathroom for homeless residents.
While some businesses have installed gates sealing off their alcoves from the sidewalk, that option is not practical for several businesses, such as the Pacific Tsunami Museum, whose particularly roomy entryway hosts several sleepers nightly.
Museum administrative assistant Kini Elia-Gonzalez said the museum has sustained minor property damage from its illicit guests — a pair of lights installed in the entry have been smashed — while employees struggle to remove graffiti from the entryway and human waste from the surrounding bushes.
Business owners agreed that the prevalence of rough sleepers on Kamehameha Avenue is detrimental to business.
Tracie Yoshimoto, owner of The Most Irresistible Shop in Hilo, said she has had to replace a shop window that was broken during an altercation between two homeless people, while in another incident, a trespasser dropped a lit cigarette that rolled under the door and burned the shop’s carpet.
“They’re a deterrent,” Yoshimoto said. “It keeps people from wanting to go downtown.”
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