House bill defunds existing homeless programs
  • Tuesday, November 20, 2018
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Hawaii News

House bill defunds existing homeless programs

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House members have decimated Gov. David Ige’s budget request for programs benefiting the homeless and that prioritize finding permanent housing, and instead want to spend $30 million to create an unknown number of zones sanctioned for homeless encampments across the islands.

The current version of HB 1900 — Ige’s budget request through June 30, 2019 — would wipe out more than $8 million requested by Ige for homeless-related programs such as Housing First, which takes homeless people off the street and places them into permanent homes and provides resources to cope with various issues, including mental health and substance abuse. Other programs also would lose funding, including first month’s rent or utility deposits to help working homeless families get into permanent housing.

At a cost of $22 million more than Ige’s request, HB 1900 would provide $30 million for the new concept of “ohana zones,” or safe zones, which would create government-sanctioned, temporary living sites across the state.

Until Tuesday, Camp Kikaha on Hawaii island represented the state’s only current version of an ohana zone. It housed 20 homeless adults who had access to tents, portable toilets, showers and a water spigot.

But Hawaii County officials late Tuesday announced that they had closed Camp Kikaha earlier in the day after eight months because the emergency proclamation that exempted the camp from zoning, building and fire codes had expired. Most of the occupants moved into permanent housing or Kona’s emergency shelter, while “a few of the occupants refused to be relocated,” Managing Director Wil Okabe said in a statement.

Federal officials continue to push the Housing First concept across the nation and say that so-called tent cities — now re-branded in Hawaii as “ohana zones” — do not provide permanent housing and typically distract communities in disputes over in whose neighborhood they should be located.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to take up HB 1900 Thursday morning.

The current version of HB 1900 has social service agencies worried about what will happen to current tenants living in Housing First rental units — and those who might follow them off the street — if the money runs out in the middle of next year.

“I’m very concerned, and I think some of my colleagues are equally concerned,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs the state’s largest homeless shelters and several homeless programs for the city. “If these programs won’t be funded, a lot of people are going to become homeless again, and that just saddens me a lot. Moving that much money away from services that work and into ohana zones, I think, is not a good idea.”

“It’s not a smart move,” said Jen Stasch, director of Partners in Care, which helps organize Hawaii’s annual homeless census. “When everybody talked about homeless priorities for 2018, we knew we had to look at out-of-the-box thinking. But nobody ever said to reduce funding for programs that we know work, like Housing First.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki cautioned that money for current homeless programs could come through separate bills still moving through the Legislature.

“I’m pretty sure most of them are currently included in bills separate from 1900,” Saiki said.

HB 1900 currently would provide $15 million for Oahu ohana zones and $5 million each for the neighbor islands.

Unlike the image of a tent city, Saiki said he’s interested in re-creating a version of the city’s new Kahauiki Village along Nimitz Highway made out of modular units that provide jobs and affordable housing for families that were once homeless.

“We want to avoid tent cities,” Saiki said. “This is a new way of approaching this problem through the creation of these zones.”

State Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-­Kakaako) for years had been advocating homeless “safe zones” and is now pushing to include sanitation, security, drinking water and other ideas to make ohana zones self-sufficient and reduce problems.

Brower emphasized that HB 1900 “still has a ways to go through session,” and money that’s currently cut could be reinstated or funded through other bills.

But Brower said he senses a turning point in the Legislature.

“It seems people are much more receptive to safe zones,” Brower said. “It seems that after several years, safe zones are more appealing.”

Brower emphasized that ohana zones should not distract from the goal of getting homeless people into permanent housing.

“Safe zones are a tool to get us to the endgame of permanent housing,” he said. “Let’s get people off the sidewalks and into a safe zone and then get them out of safe zones and into permanent housing.”

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