The maze of Hawaii’s homeless services is such a mess that a state initiative to provide housing for 100 chronically homeless individuals stalled at 16.

“There was no system to be able to understand where the units were or who had them or what the service mix throughout the community was,” said Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless czar.

So Kippen, aided by members of the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, essentially started from scratch last year to develop a new system for driving down the state’s homeless rate, which ranks second in the nation. 

Homeless man sleep Waikiki beach desperate

A homeless man sleeping in Waikiki.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The plan, dubbed Hale o Malama, was discussed Tuesday during a meeting of the council. It focuses on gathering the data on homeless individuals and families and available housing units — and then connecting them.

The meeting was attended by more than two dozen representatives of state and city agencies, the private sector and officials from the county mayors’ offices.

Homeless providers have to navigate through various federal, state and city programs, all with different qualification criteria, subsidies and services.

There are federally funded programs such as Section 8 housing and Shelter Plus Care. There are more than 100 homeless shelters and programs throughout the state dedicated to serving various populations. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs provides housing services and there are subsidized units available in the private housing market. Meanwhile, the state and city are in the midst of developing permanent housing.

To sort through all of the housing options and programs, council members are in the process of developing two databases. The first includes a standardized assessment of every homeless individual and family and the level of services they need, and assigns them a ranking.

The second will include data on available housing units, including those covered under federal, state and city programs, as well as private housing options. 

Based on their rating, homeless people will be matched with appropriate housing, such as a permanent apartment or temporary shelter. 

“We’re trying to make this into an omniscient approach to understanding where those resources are to meet those people’s needs. This is what the system is about,” said Kippen during the council meeting. 

So far, about 500 homeless individuals have been assessed under the system. 

Within the next 100 days, officials hope to start connecting the homeless with suitable housing. The neediest, including veterans and the chronically homeless, many of whom suffer from substance abuse problems and mental illness, will be given priority.

The data is expected to also drive homeless policy. 

The assessments so far have shown that about three-fourths of the homeless are in need of more extensive housing and case management assistance than they currently have access to. About one-third of those surveyed were in need of a permanent housing solution. And the most vulnerable homeless are on average 61 years old and have been on the streets for about eight years. 

But while the new data-driven approach to homelessness is aimed at creating a more efficient system and helping providers navigate services through a sea of bureaucracy, there still isn’t enough available housing for all the state’s unsheltered.

There are about 7,000 homeless people statewide, according to a 2014 survey, about 3,000 of whom lack any shelter. 

“That’s a big planning flaw,” Mark Mitchell, Hawaii Department of Public Safety mental health branch administrator, told Civil Beat after the meeting.

Currently, the state is in the process of developing 75 more permanent housing units that come with extensive services for the most troubled homeless. The city is also embarking on a major effort, funded by $47.2 million, to create up to 440 housing units. 

Mitchell worries that Hawaii’s new focus on a Housing First model, which moves chronically homeless into permanent housing and then provides them with needed substance abuse and mental health treatment, could be problematic under the new assessment tool. 

For instance, under the permanent housing program, homeless people must sign a lease, which could be a problem if they are crystal meth addicts and are later kicked out for doing illegal drugs, he said. This could also be a problem for substance abusing sexual offenders who have not yet been treated. 

“They haven’t thought about the criteria enough,” he said. 

Mitchell said that the Housing First model has proven to work best for heavy drinkers and homeless individuals suffering from significant mental illnesses.

UPDATE: Kippen stressed that funding is in place to provide 120 homeless on Oahu with extensive care for mental health and substance abuse problems at the time they are housed. The council is also working to restore previously cut health services for the homeless.

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