KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County’s plans to address homelessness remain malleable as officials continue to search for the most crucial element of any initiative — funding.
Multiple bills addressing homelessness statewide appear likely to cross over next week from the state House of Representatives to the Senate. When it comes to housing the state’s thousands of unsheltered, two proposals appear to have real traction — “ohana zones” and “homeless villages.”
Either notion is feasible for Hawaii Island, explained Lance Niimi, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim specializing in homelessness. But to procure funding, each concept would require the county implement distinct service parameters at its proposed homeless sites — Village 9 near Kealakehe High School in Kona and an unnamed site in Hilo.
“We have to be adaptable at this point,” Niimi said.
The two programs are similar, both to be established under the umbrella of the state Department of Human Services and dedicating substantial space to set up homeless communities with hygiene facilities, wraparound social services and basic shelter, while also taking into concern transportation and security needs.
The proposals diverge most prominently at the average intended stay for prospective tenants. Ohana zones, as currently proposed in House Bill 2281, which cleared its final House committee last Friday, would function as transitional housing into other long-term accommodations.
“The endgame would be 90 days … to get them into permanent support housing,” said Rep. John Mizuno (D-Oahu), who chairs the House Committee on Health and Human Services and who introduced HB 2281.
He added if a little more time was necessary, his ohana zones could be crafted to cater to those needs.
Homeless villages, on the other hand, would themselves serve as permanent housing. A homeless villages program exclusive to Hawaii Island was proposed in House Bill 2461, which died earlier this month.
However, a bill proposing a similar program statewide — House Bill 2014, introduced by Rep. Tom Brower (D-Oahu) — moved through the House Committee on Finance Tuesday.
The Puuhonua homeless villages program, as the statewide initiative would be called, pushes for “a minimum of 8,000 homes” to be developed on state land within two years of the bill’s passage or within two years of the necessary land becoming available, whichever comes last.
Niimi was part of a group that helped draft HB2461, ultimately introduced by Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) at the request of the county.
The county’s initial notion for Village 9, which was developed after Mayor Kim ordered police to evict dozens of homeless illegally residing at Old Kona Airport Park, was that the site would function as permanent housing for upwards of at least 100 of West Hawaii’s homeless.
Roughly 30 of those homeless continue to reside at the makeshift Camp Kikaha located in the Old Kona Industrial Area, adjacent to HOPE Services Hawaii.
A homeless villages initiative would allow the county to maintain that vision. However, Niimi explained that there are competing ideas within the administration that view Village 9 as a more transitional/emergency shelter type of site.
Allowing it to function as such could clear other permanent structures now used as transitional and emergency housing to accept homeless on a permanent basis, potentially cutting down construction costs and lag time for permanent housing, which is in short supply across the island.
If the state decides it favors ohana zones, though, the county is both willing and prepared to adjust those plans.
“We’re going to ask if we can be considered as a test site for that project,” Niimi said.
Mizuno said language from the homeless villages proposal could eventually be folded into ohana zones legislation to add a permanent housing element or vice versa.
“We’re keeping as many options alive as possible,” he explained. “Come April, we’re going to go in conference and we’re going to see what would be the best fit.”
The cost of establishing the homeless villages program proposed for Hawaii County alone was estimated at more than $2.5 million, with annual costs of $1.36 million for maintenance and management. Implementation of the Puuhonua homeless villages program statewide would by all accounts cost considerably more.
HB 2281 doesn’t list appropriations for the ohana zones program, but Mizuno estimated the price tag at between $5-$10 million.
“It’s not a nice number to hear, but if you’re going to spend $5 million on homeless sweeps, that is $5 million you can use for ohana zones or homeless villages,” said Mizuno, referencing monies earmarked for police sweeps in Gov. David Ige’s biennial budget.
State Homeless Coordinator Scott Morishige has said characterizing that money as utilized only for police sweeps is reductive.
Beyond cost, sanitation and safety are concerns for either program. Safe zones on Oahu, after which ohana zones are modeled, have struggled with these issues in the past. A current safe zone there, the Puuhonua O Waianae encampment where waste has accumulated and polluted the surrounding area, serves as a prime example.
But Mizuno remained confident in the efficacy of both proposals and also adamant that legislators must accomplish something significant during this session to address homelessness.
“As long as we stand solid with strict guidelines, it will work,” he said.