In light of the state’s worsening homelessness crisis, the state Public Housing Authority wants to change its rules to give priority to homeless families with children who are on its waiting list.

Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi presented the idea to the authority board Thursday, explaining that the proposed change was prompted by the sight of many children living in tents at the Kakaako homeless encampment.

“We want to end homelessness for children,” he said, noting that the change would affect state and federal public housing projects in Hawaii and the state-run Section 8 program.

Kakaako homeless raid, child with mattress

A toddler helps with packing during a sweep of a homeless encampment in Kakaako.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

Currently, the authority is allowed to set aside about half of its units as they become available for people who are homeless and living in a transitional shelter, disabled, or victims of domestic violence.

Ouansafi said that homeless families with children wouldn’t necessarily supersede those categories, but that he believes the children should receive priority over able-bodied adults.

He has requested a meeting with the governor’s leadership team on homelessness to discuss the proposed change.

The Housing Authority board agreed to support the proposal. Board member Alena Medeiros emphasized the need, noting that one social service organization, Youth Outreach, served more than 500 children last year.

“There are horrible reasons these kids are on the street with no program to support them,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

But there’s a lot that needs to be done before the change can happen.

Board member Jason Espero noted that many details need to be worked out, including how homelessness would be verified and whether the priority would go to children who are in shelters, on the street or both.

The policy itself would take several months to go into effect even if Gov. David Ige approves it.

The change would have to go through a rule-making process that could take up to a year unless the governor suspends that requirement through an emergency declaration, Ouansafi said.

Still, that suspension would only affect state-funded public housing projects. For federal projects, which make up a majority of the public housing stock, the administrative rule-making process is necessary, Ouansafi said.

Department of Human Services Director Rachel Wong recommended Thursday that the Housing Authority have some details nailed down before talking with the governor. But she said that the administration welcomes the idea and wants public housing to be part of the solution to homelessness.

There are hundreds of vacant public housing units due in part to Ige’s decision to only request $5 million for repairs and maintenance from the Legislature this year despite a $275 million repair and maintenance backlog.

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