Flush with an extra $3 million it never requested to address island homelessness, Gov. David Ige’s administration is being pressured to better coordinate the state’s homeless efforts as impatient legislators await progress.
The Legislature’s $12 million allocation came in response to Ige’s request for $9 million. The additional funding represents “both a blessing and a burden,” said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “They recognize the gravity of the responsibility that’s put on them to make sure those resources are spent wisely. All eyes are on them.”
Tokuda said she plans to “be a pain” in tracking the administration’s progress before the start of the next legislative session.
“I’m the one that won’t go away, whether they like it or not,” she said.
Along with the extra state funding, Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said several developments are coming together that collectively carry the potential to change the way the state tackles the largest per capita homeless rate in the country:
>> The state’s contracts with 32 organizations that provide services such as homeless shelters and social service outreach all expire in December or January, and the state Department of Human Services is seeking new requests for proposals. The contracts are currently worth a total of $23.1 million — $20.9 million from the state and $2.2 from the federal government.
>> In April the state began participating in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicaid Innovation Accelerator Program, which is designed to help states leverage Medicaid to better cover gaps in housing and homeless initiatives.
In a statement that accompanied the announcement, state Health Director Virginia Pressler said, “Participation in the Innovation Accelerator Program will give our teams a much-needed boost in support and training to find new ways to address the social determinants that lead to homelessness and affect health here in Hawaii. Hawaii’s cross-agency collaboration on the homeless issue is key to sustaining long-term solutions.”
>> Morishige is meeting with state departments about how much of the $12 million appropriation they’ll need to deal with homelessness before the start of the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“Homelessness really cuts across a variety of different state departments and agencies,” Morishige said.
For instance, the state Department of Transportation had been spending between $250,000 and $300,000 each time for twice-yearly sweeps of homeless encampments on DOT property. Morishige declined to comment on whether the sweeps have been halted. DOT referred questions back to Morishige.
Morishige said that from now on Ige’s administration wants homeless efforts to focus around three main areas: affordable housing; health and human services; and public safety.
“We need to look at the big picture and see how all the pieces fit together,” Morishige said. “The state recognizes that with the complexity of homelessness we really need to take a comprehensive approach, moving on all three areas simultaneously.”
Ige’s administration particularly wants to build on the early success of the nascent efforts by the city and state to house homeless people in so-called Housing First rental units.
The Housing First philosophy is that it’s more effective and cost-efficient to move homeless people from the street into fair-market rental units, where they can then receive social service help for problems that could include mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. Traditional housing models often require residents to be clean and sober before becoming eligible for housing.
The state has found Housing First units for more than 100 people, Morishige said, while the city housed 176 people in 115 units in its first year.
“If you invest in Housing First, it’s been shown in other communities to result in significant savings to the health care system,” Morishige said. “How can we build upon the early success we’re seeing in the state and the city’s Housing First programs? This is a real opportunity for us to really reorient our system of services in this Housing First direction.”
The budget bill that gave Ige’s administration an extra $3 million requires the state Department of Human Services to submit a report by Nov. 1 detailing how the $12 million will be spent and ways of measuring progress.
Morishige said the November deadline is important to “make sure we’re looking at the issue from every angle.”
“We’re at a good place of opportunity,” he said. “The timing is lining up.”
Legislators were willing to fund an additional $3 million to make a dent in the state’s homeless population, said Tokuda, the state senator.
“This is a serious issue for our community,” she said. “Providing more than what was requested was something people wanted to embrace. That was not a hard sell.”
So far, Tokuda likes the early efforts by Ige’s administration.
“What Scott (and) folks have done is a good start,” she said. “It needs to be aggressively pushed forward. We’re going to keep them on their toes. And that’s a good thing.”