Should a pilot program to expand homeless services in Hawaii be expanded?

A mile from the nearest bus stop is a 500-acre former correctional facility that held juvenile incarcerated. Young people still make the trip to the resort on Oahu’s Windward Coast, but now it’s a choice to escape the streets. Some arrive with luggage, others arrive empty-handed.

The Residential services for young people and empowerment, a homeless shelter in Kailua, began providing services to people aged 18 to 24 in 2017 with just enough private funding to maintain 20 beds, 10 staff and one outreach worker.

“Our biggest stresses came from our success,” said General Manager Carla Houser. “More young people knew us, our outreach team connected with more young people and we didn’t have a bed for them because we quickly filled up from the start.

In 2018, RYSE became the beneficiary of a new state-funded pilot program aimed at finding new ways to address the growing problem of homelessness on the islands. The additional $ 1.8 million allowed the shelter to add 10 beds, in addition to a medical clinic, behavioral health services, housing case management and more outreach on the ground.

Residential Youth Services and Empowerment is one of the recipients of the Ohana Zones program. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

In 2018, the legislature allocated $ 30 million for county government homelessness assistance programs. In 2019, lawmakers added $ 2 million to renovate two shelters in Kalaeloa.

The state required a minimum of six projects – three on Oahu and one each on Kauai, Maui and the island of Hawaii. In three years, the program broke the limit by creating 20 projects, providing more services and accommodation capacity statewide.

Funding for the program is set to expire in 2023, but state homelessness official Scott Morishige said the governor’s office was considering asking for an extension in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

State Senator Joy San Buenaventura, who represents the island of Hawaii and sits on the state’s joint House and Senate committee, supports the project but stressed that the state’s budget is limited and that the needs are great.

“I agree with an extension, but we are also realistic that we do not yet know what the state budget will be because of Covid,” San Buenaventura said, adding that the legislature may have a idea of ​​the budget around December or January.

She also noted that the pilot program was not intended to be permanent but aimed to create infrastructure so that the state could qualify for federal funds.

Houser hopes the Legislature will extend the program, but she does not wait. Its staff are already busy seeking donations and other private funding to expand the program. One thing she would like to do is lead an impact study on the disparities in homelessness on the leeward coast and search for a possible location of the site.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s going to go away, and we’ll have to move on to private financing, which was our original model,” Houser said.

“So many of the young people we serve are coming out of state systems, whether it’s child welfare, foster care or children’s mental health systems. They are getting older outside of these programs and there is no support system in place.

Villages de Maili is funded by Ohana Zones.
Catholic Charities Hawaii received $ 7.5 million from the Ohana Zones program to build Maili villages on the Leeward Coast, an 80-unit emergency shelter and a transitional housing program. Courtesy: Catholic Charities Hawaii

Advocates say the program has been a huge success in achieving its ultimate goal of helping homeless people make the transition to permanent housing.

As of September 30, projects funded by Ohana Zones were preserving 358 beds and units and creating 469 new beds. The projects have served more than 5,000 people and transformed 1,100 people into permanent housing.

Catholic Charities Hawaii built the villages of Maili on the Leeward Coast, an 80-unit emergency shelter and transitional housing center, with its $ 7.5 million.

The island of Hawaii even saw its first Ohana zones project when the old Hilo Hospital building transformed into the Keolahou Assessment Center, offering 50 beds.

“One of the benefits of the Ohana Zones program is that it has really enabled us to tackle homelessness statewide and not just on the island of Oahu,” Morishige said in an interview. “Because homelessness is a statewide problem. It impacts every part of Hawaii.

The challenges faced by the pilot program were strict deadlines for building housing units were delayed by the pandemic, and following federal guidelines which do not necessarily include non-traditional housing or shelter projects, such as mini-houses or short-term mobile tents.

At the start of the program’s development, there was confusion over the broad definition of Ohana areas that spilled over into the 2018 race for governor. Governor David Ige initially criticized the program, but eventually signed off on the project. law after being reassured that it would be different from a separate program establishing tent cities known as “safe zones”.

Hawaii is No. 2 for the highest homelessness rate in the country after New York City, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Homelessness Assessment Annual Report to Congress.

A row of tents along Moliili Neighborhood Park along South Beretania Street during the COVID-19 pandemic.  October 19, 2020
The Ohana Zone program aimed to provide more permanent solutions to the problem of homelessness that would allow people to find permanent shelter. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2020

State data measuring Hawaii’s homeless rate peaked in 2016 at nearly 8,000 people. That number has declined since then, with less than 7,000 people registered in 2020. There is no data available on the number of people living on the streets due to the pandemic which interrupted the count at one point.

However, the state continued to register those accommodated and found that 1,185 people were living in emergency shelters, 640 in transitional housing and 28 in shelters on January 25.

To date, two-thirds of the funding for the Ohana zones has been spent, or more than $ 20.8 million.

“They used most of the money as we envisioned, but there is also this HONU type project, which is very useful. said San Buenaventura. “We have to figure out how to continue funding these projects. “

Despite the pandemic, Ohana Zones was able to remain flexible when it comes to procurement programs like building two new cottage projects on the island of Hawaii and converting the HONU project to an interim screen program. outdoors and yardage to help people maintain social distancing.

While it is not known what will happen to the program, some counties have already prioritized funding for other programs funded by the Ohana areas. For example, the city and Honolulu are seeking to allocate federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to HONU.

Morishige said he knew the funding wouldn’t last forever, but it was a way “to look at long-term sustainability.”

“It’s important to realize that the real impact of the Ohana Zones program was not just the short-term benefit it offered in helping people move out of homelessness and into communities, but it really was the ability to catalyze different efforts by counties that leverage funding from other counties and other resources to create longer term investment.

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