Homeless Villages proposal up against deadline

KAILUA-KONA — An African proverb contends raising a child “takes a village.” Hawaii County contends in a new bill moving through the state House of Representatives that the same concept must be applied to address the Big Island’s homelessness crisis.

House Bill 2461, introduced by Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) at the request of county officials, proposes a Hawaii County Homeless Villages Program under the umbrella of the state Department of Human Services.

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The program would fund 50 homeless units — 25 at two sites in Kailua-Kona and Hilo, respectively — as well as two homeless assessment centers and supportive services under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s preferred Housing First model, which stresses getting the homeless housed first and dealing with any other issues they may face simultaneously or afterward.

The bill is backed by Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and his Executive Assistant Lance Niimi, who specializes in combating the island’s homelessness problem.

Niimi said the proposal would include units for both individuals and families, and space would be provided for homeless living in vehicles who would be granted access to community centers with amenities like bathrooms, communal showers, lockers, mailboxes and a kitchen. He said each site could theoretically support up to 100 people.

The House measure is connected to the county’s proposed permanent homeless site on 15 acres of recently acquired state land near Kealakehe High School dubbed “Village 9.”

The controversial proposal for Village 9 first came about last summer after the Hawaii Police Department ushered dozens of homeless out of Old Kona Airport Park, where many had been residing illegally for months, or even years.

HB 2461 is the county’s first attempt to establish funding for the project, for which Niimi said a master plan is currently being drawn up with an environmental assessment to follow. The EA would provide an opportunity for public input on the project, namely the location, with which community members have already raised concern.

“We’ve got to talk about all of the potential solutions,” Lowen said. “In reality, people are creating their own villages in places where they just end up congregating, like Old (Kona) Airport, and that hasn’t been positive.”

“I know (the location) has been controversial,” she added. “I think there would have to be time to talk to community members and make sure everybody is on the same page before moving forward. It has to be a really transparent public process.”

The bill would appropriate nearly $1.2 million from the state’s general fund for fiscal year 2018-19 to pay for construction and infrastructure. It would pull an additional $1.36 million for the two sites’ “management, maintenance, and day-to-day operations” for the same time period. The latter would be an annually recurring fee for as long as the sites exist.

HB 2461 has cleared the House committees on Health and Human Services and Housing with amendments. Those amendments include establishing a special fund for appropriated monies, removing a previously included waiver of county permitting and construction fees, and changing the bill’s effective date, which Lowen said is standard practice.

The measure’s next hurdle is the House Judiciary Committee, where a hearing for the bill must be filed by today. The bill must then be heard and moved out of committee by Thursday if it is to survive. If it does, it next heads to the Committee on Finance.

Niimi said even if the bill dies today or somewhere farther down the line, the county’s plan for permanent homeless sites in Kailua-Kona and Hilo will live on.

“We do the best we can to look at funding sources and the Legislature is obviously one, so we have to put the effort in,” he said. “I think if it doesn’t get funded, we still got to look at some other way to fund or address the plans.”

Niimi mentioned grant proposals and other philanthropic avenues, specifically a grant application the county filed last year with Bloomberg Philanthropies for what Niimi said he believed to be $100,000.

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Mayor Kim testified in favor of the bill, saying it would create “a sense of belonging and of ohana” among the homeless who would reside there and connect “people with services based on need through a one-stop center.”

Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness, also submitted written testimony in favor of sections of the legislation, namely the appropriations for homeless assessment centers, with the stipulation that such appropriations not infringe upon or replace monetary priorities for homeless initiatives set forth in the Executive Budget.