Key lawmakers agreed Monday to give Gov. David Ige’s homeless team full discretion on how they want to spend $12 million to address Hawaii’s growing homeless problem.
Ige had requested about $9 million in funding for the 2017 fiscal year budget for a variety of homeless programs. But on Monday the chairwomen of the House and Senate money committees replaced his itemized request with $12 million in general funding to address homelessness.
They said it would be up to Scott Morishige, Ige’s homeless coordinator, working with the Department of Human Services, to determine how the funding should be used and to report back to the Legislature.
By giving Morishige greater discretion, lawmakers said that they hoped the funding could be used more efficiently.
It is highly unusual for lawmakers to give a governor more than he requested in the budget.
“There are a lot of different types of services provided by the state which are also provided by the counties, which are also provided by the nonprofits,” said Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu), chairwoman of the House Finance Committee during a conference committee meeting on House Bill 1700, the state budget bill, in explaining the decision. “As opposed to compartmentalizing and putting certain services in silos, we felt that it would be better use if we put the onus on Mr. Morishige here, working with DHS, to see what are some of the benchmarks.”
Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said that the appropriation showed that the issue of homelessness is a “top priority for the House and Senate.”
“This is an opportunity for us in working together: How can we leverage resources to most effectively reach out to this very vulnerable population?” said Tokuda.
The overall budget bill is still being debated in conference committee and will go to the full House and Senate for a final vote by May 5.
Also on Monday, House and Senate members agreed to a version of SB 2559, which would increase state oversight of Hawaii’s homeless shelters. The bill, which also faces a final vote by the full House and Senate, would require shelters to comply with basic standards, such as having adequate bathroom facilities, storage for personal belongings and partitioned sleeping spaces.
The bill, introduced by Tokuda (D, Kailua- Kaneohe), would tie state funding for homeless shelters to performance measures. Nearly 600 shelter beds remain empty on any given night, according to state statistics, raising concerns among lawmakers that shelters aren’t doing a good job filling beds.
There are an estimated 7,620 homeless individuals statewide, about half of whom are living on the streets, according to the 2015 Point in Time Count, an annual homeless survey. Hawaii now has the highest rate of homeless per capita nationwide, according to federal statistics.
Ige’s initial budget request had included $3 million in funding for Housing First, a state program that provides housing and supportive services to homeless with mental health or substance abuse problems. He also included $2 million for a rapid rehousing program aimed at moving families out of shelters; $2 million for homeless outreach services; and funding for public housing renovations, a new shelter in Kakaako and a program for storing the confiscated belongings of homeless people.
Morishige told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the hearing that his office will work with the community and those that provide homeless services to best determine how to use the funding.
“We are thankful for the generous appropriation from the Legislature,” he said. “As we look at how best to direct these funds to the community, we know that there are certain investments that are effective and have proven to work well in other communities, including Housing First, rapid rehousing and really investing in outreach services in the community.”