Two Honolulu City Council members say they disagree with a decision by Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration to use $4.5 million in state funds to help house Oahu’s homeless and instead want the money to go toward providing medical services and treatment beds for those still on the streets.
The clash over priorities for dealing with the homeless is triggering the need for the administration to seek Council approval in order to accept the money. Resolution 19-165 goes before the Council Budget Committee on Wednesday.
City Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said the money will help provide case management services for clients who receive housing vouchers to live in 60 units under an expansion of the city’s Housing First program.
But Councilwomen Carol Fukunaga and Ann Kobayashi said that while the program helps those ready to go into permanent housing, it doesn’t help those on the streets with more urgent needs for medical services such as those dispensed at joint outreach centers in Chinatown and Iwilei.
The $4.5 million is part of a larger appropriation by the state Legislature for homeless programs under the state Ohana Zone funding umbrella. Usually, any state or federal grant funding the city receives is deemed accepted and authorized for use after the Council is notified of its receipt — unless members raise any objections within 15 days.
When the administration notified the Council last month it had received $6 million in Ohana Zone funding to establish temporary “Lift Zones” or “Mobile Navigation Centers,” for instance, no objections were raised. Those centers would provide short-term refuge and services at city parks for the homeless to stay after leaving shelters and before entering permanent housing.
The Lift Zones will be run by the Honolulu Police Department and staffed by medical professionals in specific parks for no more than 90 days.
Objections by Council members trigger the need for a resolution — explaining more fully the intended use of the funds — which then needs a vote from the nine-member Council. And that’s what happened with the $4.5 million allotment.
Witty-Oakland told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday that Housing First to date has issued 315 permanent supportive housing vouchers. The program has proved to be an effective way of getting homeless off the street, she said, noting that 86% of clients remain in housing while 73% report not using illegal drugs.
The $4.5 million will go to supportive case management services to ensure clients are receiving health treatment, social services, long-term housing support, financial management and property management coordination.
“The state asked us if we could help match off the housing piece of it, and they would support the supportive-services side of it,” Witty-Oakland said. “That’s how all Housing First ventures are funded. Half of it is tenant-based rental assistance (where) we pay the rent; the other half is the wrap-around supportive services.”
The city will be using general fund money to match the state’s share, Witty- Oakland said.
Fukunaga told the Star-Advertiser that Housing First is effective for those homeless willing to accept assistance and go to shelters but doesn’t help a large segment who need medical and mental health care — “the people who are taking off their clothes, who are lying on the streets, either in a stupor, drug-induced haze or (are) drunk.”
“We have been talking about the need for mental health services and treatment beds for about the last two years,” Fukunaga said. The Ohana Zone funding for Lift Zones and Housing First vouchers don’t help those people, she said.
The urban districts she and Kobayashi represent carry the largest numbers of unsheltered homeless individuals on the island, Fukunaga said.
“The practical reality in our districts is that all we really see is more sweeps,” Fukunaga said. “And our constituents and our businesses are getting angry. They feel like it’s a true waste of money, so we felt we really had to object.”
Kobayashi said she wants a clearer accounting of the money, saying there appears to be a large amount going to personnel costs. And, if possible, “we’re hoping some of the money would be used for medical services, drug rehabilitation, stuff like that,” she said.
Witty-Oakland said only about $106,000 of the allotment, or about 7%, is being used for personnel costs. The rest is going to direct services for clients, she said.
The administration does recognize the value of joint outreach centers and health care for the homeless population, Witty-Oakland said.
“That’s part of the reason for our development of the clinic at the Kuwili Street project (in Iwilei),” she said. That money is coming from city sources and the health care insurance industry.