To stem the state’s homeless crisis, Gov. David Ige is asking the Legislature for nearly $11 million this session to finance an array of homeless programs.

Under his supplemental budget proposal, the governor would direct most of the $10.8 million to staffing up the office of his homelessness coordinator and augmenting existing initiatives to get more people placed quickly into permanent housing.

The additional money would go to expand Housing First, a program designed to get people housed before deploying on-site case managers to help them work through other issues. The $3 million expansion of the program is projected to assist about 180 households.

Ige also wants to add $2 million to the rapid rehousing program, which uses short-term “shallow subsidies” to quickly place people back into housing — or keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.

But what promises to be the most visible — and controversial — component of the governor’s plan is to form the state’s own teams to clear homeless people off state land.

photograph Rui Kaneya/Honolulu Civil Beat
A crew from the Hawaii Department of Transportation clears out the area across from the Market City Shopping Center as part of its semi-annual sweep of land it oversees. Rui Kaneya/Civil Beat

Under the governor’s plan, the Hawaii Department of Transportation would get two maintenance crews to conduct homeless sweeps on “a year-round, daily basis” at an annual cost of about $790,000.

That would essentially double enforcement efforts on Oahu. For a number of years, the city has been dispatching a crew from the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance five days a week to enforce the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.

The state’s teams — made up of seven crew members — would be responsible for enforcing trespassing rules on state-controlled roads and the areas under highway overpass on Oahu, as well as disposing of any trash they encounter.

The governor’s plan also calls for spending nearly $450,000 to have sheriff’s deputies assist in the enforcement efforts and another $400,000 to store personal property left behind by homeless people.

At a legislative hearing last week, Ford Fuchigami, the director of transportation, told members of the House and Senate money committees that the work of the maintenance crews would be modeled after Honolulu’s enforcement efforts.

The city has been conducting the sweeps as part of what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption,” a strategy intended to prod homeless people into shelters where they can receive needed services.

The city’s statutes authorize the removal of property left on sidewalks — either after issuing a 24-hour notice or immediately if the items are deemed “nuisances.”

In a July analysis, Civil Beat found that the crew was carrying out the sweeps at the pace of more than 160 in a two-month period — at an annual cost of about $750,000.

While continuing to conduct homeless sweeps, the city has agreed to store personal property as part of a federal lawsuit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Critics say mimicking the city’s approach is a wrong move.

“Sweeps are expensive and ineffective — as we’ve seen time and time again, unless homeless families and individuals have somewhere to go, the sweeps simply shuffle people from place to place with no long-term improvement in homelessness,” said Mandy Finlay, advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. “Without adequate shelter options, the state is just punishing people for being poor — this is both unfair and unconstitutional.”

The ACLU of Hawaii is partnering with the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by 15 plaintiffs — who are or have been homeless — to challenge how the city conducts the sweeps.

“As we’ve seen time and time again, unless homeless families and individuals have somewhere to go, the sweeps simply shuffle people from place to place with no long-term improvement in homelessness.” — Mandy Finlay, the ACLU of Hawaii

The lawsuit is challenging the city’s practice of removing homeless people’s belongings and immediately destroying them — in violation of their basic rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.

But lawmakers didn’t question administration officials about the wisdom of replicating the city’s strategy during the hearings last week.

This came as no surprise to Scott Fuji, executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED.

“Unfortunately, the homeless sweeps have been widely accepted as kind of a short-term tool in a shed, so to speak, for the government,” Fuji said, “and they seem to be set to devote an awful lot of money for it.”

For his part, Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, says the sweeps are necessary to take care of “the interests of a larger community.”

“It’s really about keeping the public spaces public and protecting the public’s health and safety,” Morishige said.

Morishige notes that the enforcement efforts are only one part of a wide-ranging menu of expanded homeless initiatives — like the Housing First and rapid rehousing programs.

And the state is in the middle of a $400,000 conversion of a 5,000-square-foot maintenance shed in Kakaako to operate — at  $900,000 a year — a transitional center serving about 60 families.

Fuji says he’s also encouraged to see that the governor is proposing to inject $2 million into the state’s outreach program — to nearly double its effort. This, he says, will help ensure that people displaced by the state’s enforcement efforts are given some housing options.

“It’s important that any enforcement that does occur occurs with outreach workers providing services in a way that’s as coordinated as possible,” Fuji said.

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