A three-month delay to convert a Kakaako maintenance shed into a first-of-its-kind homeless shelter for families and children has had the unexpected benefit of allowing state officials to tweak the concept to try to get families in and out faster and, ideally, on their way to more permanent housing.
But first, the shed has to be overhauled — and opened.
And funding to run the shelter once it does open remains in doubt.
Gov. David Ige’s office proposed spending $900,000 in annual operating costs for the shelter, which is supposed to operate for only two years.
But a House bill provides no money, and a Senate version includes only half of the requested annual amount, or $450,000.
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said he understands the public’s frustration that the shed remains empty and unrenovated after it was intended to open in February.
“There is an urgent need,” Morishige said. “I understand that and the governor understands that. The state’s goal is to try and bring this facility up in the most cost-efficient manner possible, knowing resources are limited.”
The January discovery of a broken sewage pump for the shelter’s toilets and showers continues to affect the design of the interior layout. There is now no new date to get the shed renovated to serve 15 families — or 60 people — at a time, or 240 homeless family members annually.
To optimize the 5,000-square-foot space and make it comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, showers and toilets might have to be hauled in by trailer and used outside, along with a trailer that could be used by social service case managers — just as the city’s doing at its nascent Hale Mauliola community of formerly homeless people on Sand Island who live in refurbished shipping containers.
Hale Mauliola only takes in homeless adults, while the Kakaako shelter would be restricted to families with children.
To make it more accessible to homeless families, the shelter is now intended to operate 24 hours a day and would allow in people who do not have identification and tuberculosis clearances that other shelters require, Morishige said.
“Those are significant barriers for families trying to enter a shelter,” he said.
The goal is now to get families in, supplied with appropriate identification such as birth certificates and Social Security cards that are necessary for jobs and housing, and on their way to longer-term housing within 60 to 90 days.
It’s still undetermined whether the shelter would allow pets, a restriction that homeless pet owners frequently cite as one of the many reasons they refuse to move into a traditional shelter, which cumulatively average around 600 empty beds a night. Hale Mauliola allows pets.
A Family Assessment Center also would provide financial counseling and help finding work and applying for financial aid.
“We’re not looking at it as a traditional shelter,” Mori-shige said. “It would be the first of its kind here locally. We can bring people in off the streets and sidewalks immediately, assess their situation and get them connected and transitioned into a longer-term facility.”
A series of sweeps of homeless camps that kicked into high gear last year throughout Kakaako left behind so-called “chronic” homeless people who frequently have substance abuse or mental health issues. They would not be helped by the new shelter.
But Morishige said he still sees families living along the Kakaako shoreline.
Outreach workers from the Kalihi-Palama Health Center estimated last week that about 100 people were living in the parks around the maintenance shed, including 58 single adults and nine families consisting of 35 to 40 people.
Many of them are of Chuukese and Marshallese descent, Morishige said.
“There is a significant amount of young children that are growing up unsheltered in that encampment,” Morishige said. “There are families that have as many as four young children that appear to be under the age of 5. The assessment center would target their needs and make sure the children aren’t spending the night in the park. It will meet an unmet need in the community.”
In August, Gov. David Ige asked state agencies to identify land and buildings that could possibly be used to help reduce America’s highest per capita homeless population.
Three locations were identified: the 5,000-square-foot maintenance shed on Hawaii Community Development Authority land just mauka of Kakaako Waterfront Park and directly Diamond Head of the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Center; the Liliha Civic Center; and an old Chevron site at Pier 39.
But the Liliha Civic Center required costly renovations, including getting it hooked up to water, sewers and the electrical grid. And testing by the state Department of Health found vapor emissions at the Pier 39 site, which had been used to store fuel, Morishige said.
So the HCDA maintenance shed — in the heart of a sprawling homeless encampment that persists despite regular sweeps — seemed like it could be quickly renovated at a cost of $750,000 while directly addressing the needs of homeless families, Morishige said.
Lindsey Doi, spokeswoman for the HCDA, said the shed is the lone survivor of a complex of warehouses that were torn down when HCDA developed the surrounding parks in the early 1990s.
HCDA agreed to have the state Department of Accounting and General Services renovate the shed for a temporary homeless shelter, while still retaining ownership, Doi said.
“When we built the park we needed a maintenance shed, a place for the lawn mowers to be stored and to do maintenance on the lawn mowers,” she said.
It was being used by a private contractor that landscapes the nearby parks. But the state’s contract does not require HCDA to provide storage for the contractor’s equipment, Doi said.
In October, Ige announced the location as a potential site that could be opened as early as February.
In December, DAGS, acting as “the master contractor for the project,” gutted the interior; tore out an office, showers, sinks and toilets; and repaired the roof and exterior walls, Mori-shige said.
The work suddenly stalled in early January when a sewage pump was discovered to be so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used to run the shelter’s showers and toilets.
DAGS referred all questions about the project to Morishige.
To keep costs down, the state is relying on professional engineering and architectural help from employees from two companies who are donating their time.
“The state’s intention was to bring up something temporarily, at the least cost to the public,” Morishige said. “We’re trying to be as cost-efficient as possible and bring up something as quickly as possible on that site, rather than having to build something from scratch.”
Out of the original $750,000 estimated renovation cost, Morishige said $200,951 has been spent so far.
“We’re still projecting that we’ll stay within the original budget,” he said.
In the meantime, Morishige said, state officials are well aware of the pressure they’re under to open the new Family Assessment Center to help get homeless families and children off the street.
“We know there’s an immediate need,” he said.