Bill would permit homeless camps on state land

House Finance Committee members on Monday signed off on a gut-and-replace bill that would allow the state to issue temporary revocable leases for emergency homeless camps on state land amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 2206, Senate Draft 2, House Draft 1, would authorize the Board of Land and Natural Resources to issue month-to-month revocable permits to be used for temporary emergency sheltering of and facilities for homeless persons on state lands.

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Amendments added Monday include one requested by the Department of Land and Natural Resources that the measure “sunset” or expire three months after Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation that went into effect in late March is lifted.

The measure, which last week passed the House Committee on Housing, next heads back to the House floor for a vote.

If passed there, the bill would be sent back to the Senate for a vote because the measure’s language was changed by the House. When the proposal initially crossed over to the House prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, it called for capital improvement project funding for affordable rental housing.

If Senators agree to the changes made by the House, the measure would be sent to Ige for his signature. If they do not agree, the measure would be sent to conference during which lawmakers from both chambers would gather to hash out differences.

Scott Morshige, Ige’s Coordinator on Homelessness, in offering comment on the measure Monday acknowledged the number of government programs and initiatives established to address homeless and unsheltered individuals amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes the tiny homes recently built at Old Kona Airport Park and NAS Pool in Hilo.

He said there is concern, however, about community and privately supported camps on public lands without authorization that may not have access to basic hygiene facilities or could be located in a recognized flood zone or other hazard.

The bill would provide a mechanism for the state to regulate such unsanctioned encampments for a temporary period due to the emergency nature of the pandemic, he said. He added that the bill should include provisions to require minimal adherence to the CDC guidance to minimize and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“While there is a need to provide short-term options to address the imminent health and safety risks associated with COVID-19, the Coordinator cautions that the issuance of short-term revocable permits and sanctioning of existing encampments should not be viewed as a longterm strategy to addressing homelessness and should be viewed in the context of the pandemic,” Morishige wrote in testimony to the Finance Committee.

As written, the measure would still permit for similar partnerships between the BLNR and government entities — such as Hawaii County’s Kukuiola emergency shelter project (Village 9) — before any permit is issued, Morishige noted, acknowledging the BLNR’s efforts thus far to identify suitable state lands for homeless initiatives.

Though neither the bill nor testimony from Morishige or the DLNR identified any particular facility, one such community/private camp on public lands is the Hui Mahiai Aina houseless camp being developed on leased state farm land in Waimanalo, Oahu, by Willie and Blanche McMillan in conjunction with the state, City and County of Honolulu and the DLNR.

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“There is a certain shelter that is being cleared, so this is to facilitate that so that they do not end up being homeless,” said Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.

Housing Committee Chairman Tom Brower indicated during the committee’s June 24 meeting that the bill would help with the “possiblity of more (Ohana) Safe Zones throughout the state.”

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