The City and County of Honolulu has denied a $180,000 grant to Mental Health Kokua Activity Center, a non-profit organization that serves severely mentally ill people in downtown Honolulu and Chinatown.

Program director Bill Hanrahan sent a letter to the city Department of Community Services on Tuesday contending the agency misinterpreted the federal regulations governing the grant, and urging DCS to reconsider its decision.

The Mental Health Kokua Activity Center provides case management, psychiatry, medication, showers, meals, clothes and recreational activities to over 100 people each month who suffer from severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Man sleeping on sidewalk by trash can along Kalakaua Ave. In Waikiki.
A man sleeps on the sidewalk on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“We’re talking about the ragged guy pushing a shopping cart full of trash and screaming at traffic,” Hanrahan explained in a phone interview. “That’s our guy. We work with those people.”

The city’s last count of homeless people on Oahu found that there are 993 who have severe mental illnesses.

Hanrahan said the organization relied upon federal grants for 18 years until Congress revised the funding guidelines two years ago. The organization restructured its programs to ensure that the Activity Center would be eligible for the Emergency Solutions Grant Program, and was counting on receiving the $180,000 this year to cover about 75 percent of its budget, Hanrahan said.

In his letter to the city, Hanrahan said the funding was denied because DCS believes the program doesn’t qualify as an emergency shelter, but Hanrahan contends that it does.

He wrote that the Activity Center is “the only program on Oahu specifically designed to work with homeless severely mentally ill adults” and that the program will have to close if it doesn’t receive funding.

“Where will the 100+ clients it serves every month get services and how will they get off the streets?” he wrote. “What provision has the Department of Community Services (DCS) made for this population? A consolidated plan that does not provide for this population is irresponsible, short-sighted and not responsive to the urgency of the state and City’s homeless crisis.”

City spokesman Andrew Pereira said in a phone interview Tuesday that the organization’s current funding from the city lasts through this summer.

UPDATE: Pereira sent a follow-up email Wednesday explaining that the grant money went instead to a rapid rehousing program for victims of domestic violence because of the city’s decision two years ago to focus on funding programs that provide housing to homeless people through a philosophy called Housing First:

It’s not a matter of whether the MHK Activity Center is considered a shelter and whether the City may use ESG funds for the program, but how MHK’S Activity Center proposal stacked up against others based on the City’s Housing First focus for those monies.The city announced its shift in priority for ESG funding two years ago, and agencies were afforded ample time to adjust their programming if they wanted funding to continue.

ESG funds are awarded through the city’s RFP process. The city received many more proposals this year than last, and had to deny funding to several organizations (last year everyone got at least partially funded).

Funding that could have gone to the MHK Activity Center ended up going to a rapid rehousing program for victims of domestic violence. This was the first time that anti-domestic violence advocates submitted a proposal, and the RFP selection committee determined the domestic violence proposal better met the goals of the RFP when compared to the MHK proposal.

Outside of ESG funds, other funding sources exist for a project like the MHK Activity Center, including CDBG grants and city GIA. MHK had the opportunity to submit a proposal for all sources of funds.

MHK remains a key partner in the City’s efforts to address homelessness and we look forward to continuing the partnership with this extremely worthwhile nonprofit organization.

Hanrahan said the city is accepting public comments on the decision until Monday through letters to Holly Kawano, Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, 530 South King St., Room 208, Honolulu, HI 96813 or calls to 768-7762.

Read Hanrahan’s letter below:

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