A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk across from the seawall on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona.
KAILUA-KONA — Just days into his second term, Gov. David Ige is acting quickly to implement a new program designed to combat one of the state’s most hard-to-manage issues — homelessness.
The governor on Friday signed an emergency proclamation to fast-track the state’s new Ohana Zone initiative, approved by the Legislature last session. The program will fund $30 million for at least three projects on Oahu and one project per neighbor island as Hawaii attempts to gain momentum in its struggle with homelessness.
“I did, this morning, sign an emergency proclamation to really help facilitate and accelerate our efforts in providing housing for those most vulnerable in our communities, those who are homeless,” Ige said during a press conference.
The proclamation will put $17 million quickly into action, mostly for work on Oahu where there is considerably more established infrastructure to combat the problem.
“Our strategy is to utilize existing facilities that are already in place so that we’re able to really hit the ground running with Ohana Zone funds to get projects out in the community as quickly as we can,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness. “Because we know that there’s a great need, we want to be able to address that as quickly as possible with the resources that have been provided to us.”
Immediate action on Hawaii Island will be limited to The Homes at Ulu Wini, a housing project off Hina Lani Street in Kona. A total of 23 units will be converted, 10 to emergency shelters for families that could handle up to six people per unit and 13 to permanent supportive housing.
Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said in May that units at Ulu Wini are currently backed by Section 8 funding. Converting the 13 units with Ohana Zone money frees up those Section 8 funds to use elsewhere.
As to the other $13 million in Ohana Zone funding, Kim and Takemoto are hoping to secure annual backing for their idea for a long-term, multi-acre homeless housing initiative off Kealakehe Parkway dubbed Village 9 and its yet-to-be-named Hilo counterpart.
“We are in active discussion with the governor’s office to tap into some of the available balance of Ohana (Zone) funds for Village 9 and an East Hawaii site,” Takemoto wrote in a text message Friday. “The counties are working together so that we all have equal shares relative to need. We will be kicking off the master planning for Village 9 in January.”
History of homelessness
While numbers have decreased throughout the state in each of the past two years, according to point-in-time count studies conducted annually in each county, Hawaii yet retains the dubious honor of leading the country in per capita homelessness.
The proliferation of the homeless, which continued unfettered for nearly a decade until 2016, brought with it several social and economic problems. In Kona, those impacts have most noticeably been irked business owners who say the homeless presence frightens and agitates visitors, disrupting tourism commerce that is far and away the county’s largest revenue source. There’s also been the frequent cropping up of tent cities in public spaces.
Ige was quick to delineate between Ohana Zones and informal congregations of homeless — such as the one that developed at Old Kona Airport Park and sent dozens of individuals back onto Alii Drive and into the Old Industrial Area when police dispersed the illegal campers.
“An Ohana Zone is not the same as a safe zone or a tent city,” Ige said. “We know that tent cities are not effective in addressing homelessness because oftentimes they’re not accompanied by … support services, which we know is fundamentally important to supporting moving homeless individuals into permanent housing.”
Support services in the context of the governor’s comments are resources such as mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation, problems that often characterize those classified as chronically homeless whom the state will prioritize in its Ohana Zone projects under the federal Housing First model.
Also with the surge in homelessness came an increase in petty crimes and a public health crisis that drains Hawaii’s annual Medicaid funds. Lt. Gov. Josh Green advocated in 2017, while he represented Kona in the state Senate, to classify homelessness as a medical condition.
His thoughts were to use some of the roughly $2 billion in Medicaid funds the state receives each year and divert it to providing housing and support services to chronically homeless, stemming the stream of emergency room visits.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa conducted a study in recent years that identified a 43 percent dip in the cost of health care for homeless who were provided six months of consistent housing.
At the end of November, the federal government granted Hawaii approval to divert some of its Medicaid funding to homelessness initiatives. As to how much the feds will allow and how much the state will allocate, that is “not determined yet,” Green wrote in a text message.
“We’re going to get a lot more bang for our buck,” he said during the press conference. “We will see a decrease in utilization of Medicaid dollars because we’ll be helping the (people) hardest to take care of.”
As to crime, bumps in vandalism, property crimes, trespassing and theft have been noted by business owners in Kona’s Old Industrial Area. Specifically, they’ve mentioned increased activity in front of HOPE Services’ campus, which includes an emergency shelter, the Friendly Place, which serves meals and offers other services, and Hale Kikaha.
Hale Kikaha was West Hawaii’s response to Ige’s last emergency proclamation on homelessness, which came in late 2015. It created a community of micro-housing units made from converted shipping containers to pull some of Kona’s most at-risk homeless off the street.
When the county in the summer of 2017 made it clear to the homeless that Old Kona Airport Park was off limits, several dozen evacuees moved in to a lot next to Hale Kikaha dubbed Camp Kikaha, where they resided for several months as the county placed as many as it could into transitional housing.
After the county no longer could afford to support the camp, it was disbanded. However, not all the homeless have dispersed, which complicated issues for HOPE Services and area businesses.
Green said in a text that it’s possible funding for increased security measures at the site could be made available through the Ohana Zone general fund.