With every House seat and nearly half of the Senate up for election this year in Hawaii, lawmakers are preparing to throw a political Hail Mary to show some progress on the homeless issue.
The plan is to create government-sanctioned, homeless “ohana zones” that have had little success so far but are being embraced along the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego.
Key Hawaii lawmakers want to open ohana zones for homeless families with school-age children. There is little support for including chronically homeless people with substance abuse or mental health issues or tendencies toward violence — one of the most visible segments of Hawaii’s homeless population that regularly generate complaints from businesses, residents and tourists.
“Chronically homeless individuals with mental health needs require more intensive help,” said Sen. Josh Green, a Hawaii island emergency room physician who is chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee. “And when it comes to security, you can’t allow people to be violent in these kinds of places. That’s the only hard line I have. People who are violent have to move on.”
Legislators in both chambers have not agreed on the details of what Hawaii’s next ohana zone should look like, how big it should be or where it should be located.
But “there is a sense of urgency,” said state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, who hopes to open the next ohana zone by the end of the year.
Whatever form Hawaii’s next ohana zone takes, Mizuno said it has to be done right.
“We understand the gravity of it,” Mizuno said. “Once the state gets involved, we’re going to be liable for everything that happens. We cannot fail.”
Finding the funding
The push for ohana zones comes as the House and Senate are taking vastly different approaches toward homelessness.
The House gutted Gov. David Ige’s more than $8 million budget request to continue funding programs endorsed by federal housing officials such as Housing First, which places chronically homeless people into market-rate rental units where they get help for their problems, including mental health and substance abuse; and so-called rapid re-housing, which provides one-time financial assistance like first month’s rent or utility deposits to help financially qualified homeless people get into housing.
Instead, the House wants to pour $30 million in capital improvement money to build infrastructure for ohana zones. House Speaker Scott Saiki said existing homeless programs still could be funded through stand-alone bills. The Senate wants to fund $15.9 million to continue existing homeless programs, including Housing First, and has budgeted a modest $650,000 for an ohana zone pilot project for Hawaii County.
State Sen. Will Espero, an ohana zone proponent and chairman of the Senate’s Housing Committee, believes ohana zones need to answer the question of “how can we get some of these individuals off of the street and into units that can be put up quickly? … How we do it is the $100,000 question.”
Espero specifically does not want to replicate Hawaii’s most recent ohana zone, Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona, which closed last month after an eight-month experiment.
Out of 51 homeless people who went through Camp Kikaha, more than half — 28 people — were kicked out, arrested or left on their own and were presumed to be homeless again. Lance Niimi, Hawaii County’s homeless coordinator who was in charge of creating Camp Kikaha, resigned from the county last week.
“It was basically an asphalt piece of property in an industrial area where people could put up their makeshift tarps and tents,” Espero said. “Visually it didn’t look very nice at all. It just looked like another homeless camp.”
In interviews with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, individual legislators outlined some of the ohana zone ideas under consideration by the House and Senate:
>> An ohana zone to relocate the approximately 200 residents and 150 dogs living on state-owned, oceanfront property next to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor in an organized encampment called Pu‘uhonua o Waianae. Such an ohana zone could be modeled after Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo that is run by Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, leader of the Nation of Hawaii sovereignty group.
>> An ohana zone comprising igloo-shaped domes or other hardened structures that could house families, including a dome for a communal kitchen. Espero said he hopes that others might be able to live in the zone in their cars or in decommissioned buses.
That model would accept only people motivated to live in a structured, communal setting like Pu‘uhonua o Waianae and would not be aimed “at the drug addicts, or those with mental health problems,” Espero said. Otherwise, “the ohana zones have to be able to take care of these individuals’ every needs: obviously housing and a roof over their head, restrooms, hygiene, food, security and definitely programs and services. It won’t succeed without programs and services. … The difference is that this is not a big warehouse or a big 10,000-square-foot building like a homeless shelter. If done right, a safe zone could accommodate 50 to 100 people easily.”
Mizuno also would like to include job training and round-trip transportation to get children to school and their parents to work.
Green, (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona), said tents might work in some rural areas while hardened structures might be more appropriate for urban areas.
“You’ll still need a resident manager, in some cases,” Green said.
>> A re-creation of businessman Duane Kurisu’s Kahauiki Village, which opened in January between Sand Island and Keehi Lagoon Park on the makai edge of the H-1 freeway viaduct. Kahauiki Village is designed to provide permanent housing for working families with children who live in modular homes and pay $725 and $900 per month in rent, depending on the size of the unit. Kurisu, who got companies to donate materials and labor, has not disclosed the actual cost to build Kahauiki Village, which comes with its own electrical grid, sewer system and fresh water. The city donated $4 million of the $12 million infrastructure costs.
The state transferred the 11.3 acres of land to the city, which leases it for Kahauiki Village at a cost of $1 per year for 10 years, with an option to extend it for 10 more years.
House Speaker Saiki said he would like to replicate Kahauiki Village for a future ohana zone, stressing the need that it be near “transportation and schools and jobs.”
“We do not want to see tent cities developed,” Saiki said. “We want semi-permanent structures like Kahauiki Village.”
While the House has budgeted $30 million in capital improvement money for ohana zones, Green said they also “should be nimble and mobile. It shouldn’t be hardened where it’s there for 20 years.”
There is also the considerable issue of where the next ohana zone would be located. A legislative working group looked at nine state-owned residential, industrial and agricultural parcels on Oahu last year and concluded in December that each one had problems, including soil contamination.
Safe zone failures
Critics of ohana zones such as Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, insist that the Camp Kikaha experiment underscored Honolulu’s tent city experience in Aala Park from 1990 to 1993 that abruptly ended following a night of “wilding” that included an attempted murder and a trail of crime scenes.
“We know safe zones are a failure,” Alexander said. “Look at Hawaii island, Kona. They simply don’t work. At the same time the Legislature is trying to de-fund Housing First for something that is a social experiment that has failed at Aala Park and now Kona. This is a travesty.”
If the Senate and House can reach agreement, Mizuno hopes legislative leaders will then work with Gov. David Ige to find an appropriate site for Hawaii’s next ohana zone and have it up and running by the end of the year.
“It’s not the perfect solution to have ohana zones,” the House member said. “But if we are to open the first ohana zone by September, October or November, we need to make sure they do not fail.”