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Homeless in Hawaii: Lack of assured funding slows progress on Big Isle

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    This is a resident returning to her home in the Waianae homeless encampment by the Waianae Boat Harbor.

Uncertainty over whether the Legislature will continue to fund programs to help the homeless has caused at least one nonprofit to pull back on services, including efforts to get more chronically homeless adults and low-income families off the street on Hawaii island.

Some of Hawaii County’s homeless have been placed into 407 residences that rely on Housing First funding that pays two-thirds of market-rate rentals for the chronically homeless. Another 887 people have gotten into Hawaii island housing through “rapid re-housing,” which helps working families qualify for units they can afford with one-time help with first month’s rent or utility deposits.

Now, with the House and Senate heading down vastly different paths on funding legislation, “We’re moving forward and they’re making us go backwards,” said Brandee Menino, CEO of Hope Services Hawaii and chairwoman of Bridging the Gap.

Gov. Davig Ige requested more than $8 million to continue to fund existing homeless programs, but the House wiped out the request and instead proposed pouring $30 million in capital improvement money into the new concept of homeless “ohana zones.” House Speaker Scott Saiki has said existing programs still could be funded through stand-alone bills once the state budget is settled.

The Senate wants to provide $15.9 million to continue existing programs, including Housing First and rapid re-housing, and $650,000 for an ohana zone pilot project for Hawaii County.

Through Housing First some of Hawaii island’s most hard-core, chronically homeless “are getting stabilized or are stabilized,” Menino said. Legislators “invested in the program. Then they don’t even give the time to consider the lives of the people they saved.”

The uncertainty is affecting progress on Hawaii island, Menino said.

“We’re hesitating in putting more people into this program if it’ll only contribute to them being moved onto the street come July” when the current funding ends, she said.

And for Hawaii island landlords, who have already taken a chance on renting their properties to homeless people, the lack of assurances from the Legislature to ensure future funds puts the credibility of Housing First at risk, Menino said.

“We said we would pay this rent on this property,” Menino said. “It’s our reputation in this small rural community. … So we’re hesitating, not wanting to use money.”

Menino is hardly alone in her concerns.

Across the state a hui representing 67 social service agencies told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that both the House and the Senate appear reluctant to ensure long-term funding for existing programs — including Housing First and rapid re-housing — that they say are proved to reduce homelessness and are endorsed by federal housing officials.

“Let’s invest in the programs that we know work,” said Gavin Thornton, chairman of the advocacy committee for Partners in Care.

Some of the organizations such as PIC had hoped the Legislature would ensure — and perhaps increase — long-term funding for programs including Housing First and rapid re-housing. Instead, neither program appears to be guaranteed as the House and Senate prepare to hammer out the differences in their homelessness approaches heading into conference committee.

Reducing Housing First money alone would send people back on the street, “where they’re frequently in the ER, frequently in the courts, frequently in the jails or prison,” said Ellen Carson, who represents Housing Now, a program of Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE).

“It is really important to keep these programs going,” said Catherine Graham, co-chairwoman of FACE’s Housing Now task force for FACE.

Rather than spend $30 million to lay infrastructure for “ohana zones” that are supposed to be temporary, Ryan Kusumoto, vice chairman of the board of directors of PHOCUSED, said legislators might instead be guided by a simple thought: “Think about what’s working right now,” he said.

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