If you thought the recent actions by Gov. David Ige on homelessness were more window dressing than substance, doubt no more. As the state of emergency declaration earlier this month from Hawaii’s first-term governor showed, he ain’t messing around.

Leveraging authority vested in him by the Hawaii Constitution and state laws, Ige issued the proclamation to enable rapid action on three things: Use of about $1.3 million in general revenue funds to facilitate rapid transitions into housing for more homeless people around the state, to extend state contracts with homeless service providers by another six months, and fast tracking the opening of a new homeless shelter on Oahu.

To get out in front of the homeless challenge, Ige deemed it necessary to set aside some of the state bureaucracy, in this case, 25 laws and regulations for no more than 70 days. On Monday, the governor announced a supplement to the proclamation that would help clear the remaining homeless encampments in Kakaako and extend the original emergency declaration from 60 days to 70.

Gov. David Ige, issuing an emergency proclamation over the state's homelessness crisis.
Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation over the state’s homelessness crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Given that the bulk of those statutes and rules either deal with the formal declaration of an emergency or with time-consuming requirements around labor, procurement and related areas, we believe the tradeoff between suspending the rules for a short time and the opportunity for rapid action on an issue consistently described now as a crisis is entirely appropriate.

While about $700,000 of the $1.3 million is to be focused on services on Oahu where the problem is the largest, more than $600,000 is going to enhance services on neighbor islands, including establishing Housing First services. Currently, those efforts are only in place on Oahu, even though the Housing First approach — moving the homeless first into permanent housing, then addressing their individual needs — is now the philosophy guiding engagement on homelessness statewide.

The Housing First philosophy requires that funds be readily available for fundamental needs: first and last month’s rent, security deposits and temporary support for other related costs that are often insurmountable obstacles for individuals and families trying to move off the streets.

That philosophy requires that funds be readily available for fundamental needs: first and last month’s rent, security deposits and temporary support for other costs that are often insurmountable obstacles for people trying to move off the streets.

A significant portion of the emergency funding would go to service providers whose soon-to-expire contracts would be extended through next June. Meanwhile, the state would be putting those same services out for bids for new contracts in hopes of providing enhanced services with greater cost efficiencies, State Homelessness Coordinator Scott Morishige told the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Monday.

Some funds would also go toward a new Oahu homeless shelter primarily serving homeless families. The governor’s leadership team on homelessness continues to look at the same four sites — two in Kakaako, one on Nimitz Highway at Pier 38 and the Liliha Civic Center. While officials haven’t decided which one is most suitable for development, they hope to have a site ready for residents by year’s end.

That might be nearly impossible without the emergency declaration, but with some red tape removed from the process and usable funds already identified, some homeless individuals could be ringing in the New Year with a roof over their heads.

“We want to be able to respond quickly to the needs of the community,” Morishige said. “The homeless numbers have increased dramatically over the past year, particularly among those who are unsheltered. Given the urgency of that need, we need to act in an expeditious manner.”

From Summer Promise to Fall Action

The need for more urgency was a theme that emerged from Ige in early summer, shortly after the legislative session ended. At the time, he described his newly launched effort to combat homelessness as “unprecedented.” That might have been taken for the sort of overly hyped political promise we’ve all heard too many times before. But here’s what’s happened since then:

Scott Morishige, the state coordinator on homelessness, at a recent press conference.
Scott Morishige, the state coordinator on homelessness, at a recent press conference. Cory Lum/Civil Beat
  • Ige hired Morishige and provided for a beefing up of the homeless coordinator’s office, with additional staff and budget. Despite its statewide responsibilities, the office previously had two administrators, no support staff and no budget.
  • Perhaps even more importantly, he created the homelessness leadership team. No low-level group of faceless bureaucrats, it includes members and staff of Hawaii’s federal delegation, key legislative leaders, the Honolulu mayor and City Council chair and others who have the authority and standing to get things done. Its meetings and frequent press conferences have brought a new sense of transparency and action to this issue.
  • The pace of developing temporary shelter on Sand Island quickened. After months of delay, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled the plan for “Hale Mauliola” in June. Shipping containers converted into modest, modular housing are being put in place on the property now, and the first of an estimated 87 individuals will begin moving in later this fall.

More questionably, Ige and his leadership team supported the aggressive city-conducted sweeps in Kakaako over the past month. While this tactic is problematic, the city and state did move 158 people — including 25 families — from the encampment into housing.

While the governor has called the Kakaako effort a “model,” Morishige told the Civil Beat Editorial Board Monday that it’s not a one-size-fits-all model but a process that will be adapted to the specific needs of communities and populations elsewhere going forward.

And that’s encouraging because for sweeps to be effective, there must places for the swept to be housed, otherwise they’re simply pushed into other communities and neighborhoods typically unprepared to receive them.

Any one of the developments or actions cited above would seem modest on its own. But taken together, they represent a level of activity and mindset far likelier than past inaction to produce progress in a small state where the number of homeless individuals totaled 7,620 at the beginning of this year.

The state of emergency declared by Ige ensures we’ll get to solutions more quickly. For the thousands of individuals who will sleep on the streets of Hawaii tonight, those solutions can’t come quickly enough.

About the Author