Eight Hawaii homeless shelters estimate they would be forced to collectively eliminate 662 beds under changes proposed by the state Department of Human Services.
The number of available beds is a critical part of ongoing homeless sweeps conducted by county and state officials, who regularly check with homeless shelters to ensure there are enough beds to comply with court rulings that homeless people caught up in sweeps need to have a safe place to go.
DHS’ proposed changes would require shelters to carve out 10 cubic feet for each sleeping area.
For Waikiki Health’s Next Step Shelter in Kakaako, the changes would cost the shelter 100 of its 230 beds.
“Where are those 100 people going to go?” asked Jason Espero, director of Waikiki Health’s Next Step Shelter. “Let us figure out the best way to run our shelters. There’s a lot of micromanaging going on.”
The eight shelters, including one on Maui and another on Hawaii island, represent fewer than half of all of the state’s homeless shelters.
The shelters’ directors plan to individually respond to DHS’ deadline, today, to give feedback. They met Thursday to discuss changes to DHS’ contracts for new shelter services that begin Feb. 1. The state’s current shelter contracts expire Jan. 31.
The eight shelter operators, including the state’s largest, the Institute for Human Services, collectively have 1,841 beds. They estimate that DHS’ proposed changes could force them to cut that number to 1,179.
“If we lose 662 beds, you’re going to see a lot more people on the street,” said Connie Mitchell, IHS’ executive director. “Those 662 people are in beds right now, and certainly people will have to leave if these rules are enforced. We also agree we want to move people through faster and get people into permanent housing faster. But many of these proposals are unreasonable. We are very much in line with being willing to be held responsible and make our shelters more attractive to people. But our policymakers aren’t in a position to tell us how to do it better.”
Other proposed rule changes would require 50 percent of each emergency shelter’s clients to be out within 30 days, and half of them have to get into permanent housing.
Eteuati Tutuvanu, 54, checked into IHS on Thursday with his wife and two daughters after he was evicted from his Waiakamilo apartment.
Tutuvanu was stunned at having to check into a shelter and was not happy that the state is proposing that families like his be out within 30 days.
“That’s not right,” he said. “We need help, especially families.”
Espero said the 30-day deadline to move clients out could force some chronically homeless people into permanent housing who are not prepared to handle the responsibilities of a home, which could put them back on the street.
“Homeless recidivism could increase,” Espero said. “You’re rushing to get people into housing when they’re not completely ready. They don’t have the (social service) support and could end up getting evicted.”
Harold Brackeen III, DHS’ homeless-programs administrator, said no decisions have been made on the request for proposal — or RFP — process for the new shelter contracts.
“We encourage everyone’s participation in the RFP process,” he said.
Shelter operators, Brackeen said, “can submit their comments for our office to consider.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said the state’s RFP process “allows for the possibility to make amendments. There’s still an opportunity for that to occur.”
DHS would review how well the shelters meet the proposed goals every quarter, instead of annually, and could withhold funds from those that don’t meet the new guidelines each quarter, said Darryl Vincent, chief operating officer for U.S. VETS, which operates a veterans homeless program in Kalaeloa, runs a separate homeless shelter in Waianae for mostly nonmilitary clients and has the city’s Housing First contract to place homeless people into market-rate housing.
The rule changes are meant to give homeless people larger bed space in shelters, increase safety and make shelter life more welcoming, while moving homeless people faster into permanent housing, Vincent said.
Instead, Vincent said, the proposed changes represent an unprecedented effort to micromanage Hawaii’s disparate shelters.
“We serve people in masses and there are concerns about safety,” Vincent said. “When you put people together, there’s a potential for danger. We acknowledge that. We’re saying we agree with you. But we need to be careful about how we address that.”
Other rules proposed by DHS would prohibit contact between adults and children in dining areas, common areas, bathrooms and sleeping areas, meaning shelters would have to build new facilities with money they don’t have, Espero said.
Next Step and other shelters also would have to build more bathrooms to comply with proposed rules that would require one toilet for every 10 people.
“It’s an unfunded mandate,” Espero said.
Espero believes the proposed rules are an attempt to follow a bill passed by the Legislature last session regarding homeless shelters that offered few specifics.
Espero said his father, state Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) offered to author or support legislation that could clarify the intent of the bill and give shelter operators more leniency in the way they run their shelters.
But if the proposal goes through as written, Jason Espero said shelters like his could start turning away families and children starting Feb. 1.
“Under these proposals,” he said, “several shelters will no longer be able to serve families and kids.”