LIHU‘E — In a virtual meeting last week, the state House Human Services, Health and Homelessness committees discussed the current state of homelessness in Hawai‘i.
“Currently, homelessness is a crisis within a crisis,” said Ashton Varner, County Housing Agency (CHA) Homeless Programs coordinator. “The pandemic required homeless-service providers to shift focus and accommodate new, unprecedented restrictions. Capacity at emergency shelters and transitional shelters was reduced to avoid the potential spread of COVID-19.”
Varner said the county hadn’t had a dedicated homeless program in the past.
“The homeless coordinator role is still new, and it’s now housed entirely within the Kaua‘i County Housing Agency,” Varner said. “(We are) continuing to foster partnerships with nonprofits as well as Continuum of Care, Bridging The Gap and taking an active role in the local chapter (of the) Kaua‘i Community Alliance.”
Varner said the county is currently working on an ‘Ohana Zone project called the Kealaula on Pua Loke in Lihu‘e.
This ‘Ohana Zone will be permanent supportive housing with on-site case management provided by Women In Need.
According to Varner, the governor’s emergency proclamation was the key to moving quickly and efficiently. Construction took less than 10 months, and the cost was one-third less per unit than the typical cost of affordable-housing units.
The CHA is hoping to repeat this model in other areas of Kaua‘i.
There are 21 household residents, including 63 individuals and 29 keiki, who moved in to Kealaula beginning in late November. Those eligible were residents who were actively homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness, with a preference to families with minor children.
In the county’s efforts to respond to COVID-19, it implemented beach-park camping zones across the island. As of Jan. 8, there are 238 individuals living at the county beach parks, which offer showers, bathrooms and running water.
“Providing a more-realistic way for the homeless to be able to shelter-in-place,” Varner explained as one of the motives behind opening beach parks to long-term homeless individuals and families.
“Beach-park access to the population has had positive effects on outreach; easier to reach more people at one time. Safe places to live reduce stress and allow people to focus on other stabilizing factors such as employment and mental and physical health.”
The 238 individuals include 72 adults and five children living at Lydgate Park; 59 adults and 10 children at ‘Anini Beach Park; 44 adults and nine children at Salt Pond Beach Park; 26 adults and four children at Lucy Wright Park; and eight adults and one child at Anahola Beach Park.
Varner said six households of 25 individuals moved into the Kealaula housing project from beach parks in August.
Last September, according to Varner, the county has done a Lihu‘e outreach with eight nonprofits and in both September and October the county did park cleanups with the Department of Parks and Recreation and Department of Public Works Division of Solid Waste.
In November of 2020, Varner said the Project Housing Connect outreach with 15 nonprofits visited three locations.
Varner said that, similar to the federal Housing Choice Voucher Section 8 program, the county has created a Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program.
It is a “two-year voucher program with a preference for those who are actively homeless or at risk of becoming homeless,” Varner said. “We currently have 19 households leased up (at capacity) and we have 228 households or 402 individuals on the waiting list due to lack of funding.”
Bridging the Gap Chair Brandee Menino said that, statewide, 448 of its clients are families with minor children, 57% are families led by single mothers, 28% are children and 43% are keiki 5 years old and younger.
Menino also said 4% of the houseless community has lived in Hawai‘i under a year, while 40% have lived in the state for over 20 years. Six percent of the statewide houseless community are veterans and 10% are kupuna.
According to Bridging the Gap’s Homeless Management Information system, 54% are families with children.
Menino said that, on Kaua‘i, 7% of the houseless community has lived in Hawai‘i under a year, 51% have lived in Hawai‘i over 20 years, while 7% are U.S. veterans and 14% of the houseless community on Kaua‘i are kupuna.
Menino said from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, some 114 people moved into permanent housing, a 30% homelessness exit rate into permanent housing. They were 497 homeless persons served in Kaua‘i County.
Kaua‘i County Councilmember Felicia Cowden said the main focus should be housing, and the CHA has done an extraordinary job in a difficult time to quickly create a number of projects around the island.
“The challenge that we are facing that we discussed today at County Council is how to be able to address the housing for people with jobs,” Cowden said. “Most federal monies address 60% or 80% below the area median income. Hosing is difficult for everyone.”
The state’s Coordinator on Homelessness, Scott Morishige said, “Addressing homelessness requires a coordinated effort, and we cannot address this issue working in silos. Over the past few years — through a coordinated effort between the state, the four counties and our homeless service providers — we have been able to reduce the total number of homeless individuals statewide and increased the number of homeless individuals placed into permanent housing.”
Morishige said that, by working together, they have brought new permanent housing projects online, such as Kealaula at Pua Loke on Kaua‘i, and have been able to conduct targeted outreach to offer COVID-19 testing and other services during the pandemic.
“As a result of this collective effort, the percent of homeless individuals exiting programs to permanent housing increased from 54% in 2019 to 55% in 2020, despite the ongoing public health challenges,” Morishige said.
“We are grateful for our partners at the counties, as well as the organizations in Partners in Care and Bridging the Gap for their collective effort over the past year.”
Stephanie Shinno, education, business, and community reporter can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.