Communities such as Hawaii that continue to see their homeless populations rise “tell us that something is broken” and changes need to be made, the regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday.
Island operators representing eight of Hawaii’s largest homeless shelters complained to the Star-Advertiser last week that the state Department of Human Services is forcing what they called “unfunded mandates” to create larger living spaces, add more bathrooms and separate children from adults when new shelter contracts go into effect Feb. 1.
But the state’s efforts to move homeless people faster through Hawaii’s shelters and get them into permanent housing quicker follows new best practices in some mainland cities that are seeing both success and struggles, said Katy Miller, the Seattle-based regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Miller said the DHS proposals are akin to an overhaul of the way mainland communities are adapting to address homelessness, including moving clients through shelters faster and into permanent housing.
“The changes that are happening here are very much being mirrored in other parts of the country,” Miller said. “That fast response system is the national best practice … and all shelters need to meet a certain standard … that is dignified and safe and a healthy space.”
Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., in particular, have realized that they need to make their shelters more attractive to get homeless people in and provide help for a wide array of issues which could lead to permanent housing in so-called “Housing First” market-rate rental units, Miller said.
Successful homeless shelters that help lead to permanent housing are open around the clock, staffed with social service workers to deal with clients’ problems, and often allow pets, she said.
Mainland cities such as Houston that have overhauled their entire homeless approach, including shelters, have “created a system that’s very responsive,” Miller said. “The shelter system is a key tool for ending homelessness (that can) unblock the system.”
In San Francisco, Miller said, officials “realized their shelter system needed to change. ‘Why would I go inside if I can’t have my pets, my possessions or my partner or my friend?’ It was a dead end. There was no incentive for people to leave the streets. They haven’t been offered anything that’s truly better than what their current situation is. … We need shelters to be more responsive in that way.”
Hawaii’s only shelter that allows pets, Hale Mauliola on Sand Island, offers formerly homeless clients help with their problems while working to get them into Housing First homes.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell told the Star-Advertiser last week that he’s eager to see what effect Hale Mauliola — and the city’s other new homeless housing projects — have on Honolulu’s homeless population when the next national homeless count is conducted in January.
Hawaii saw its overall homeless population go up 4 percent during the last so-called “point-in-time count” of the islands’ homeless, while the number of Honolulu homeless increased by 37 people, representing a rise of less than 1 percent.
Keith Harris, acting executive director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ homeless program office, acknowledged that Hawaii shelter operators are worried that proposed local changes — such as requiring more space between each bed — could cost them at least 662 beds.
But, based on what’s happening at some mainland shelters, Harris said, “In the end you’re likely to have better occupancy rates and a lower unsheltered population.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said, “Our state shelter system hasn’t been closely looked at in at least five years.”
The Legislature last session passed Act 234, which establishes minimum standards for shelter operations, and Hawaii needs “to build a system … that’s really housing-focused,” Morishige said.
Homeless shelters play a critical role in ensuring homeless people get the help they need, Morishige said, adding that they can no longer operate “in isolation.”
“It’s really looking at all of these things in tandem, collectively,” he said.
On Monday, Morishige said, the state likely will post responses to the comments it received from its request for proposal, or RFP, regarding new shelter contracts.
As a result of the feedback, Morishige said, the state “will likely make an addendum to the RFP.”
Organizations that want to bid on the new shelter contracts will then have until Dec. 5 to make a formal proposal, Morishige said.
Contracts could be awarded by Dec. 21 and take effect Feb. 1, he said.