Despite rising homelessness in Hawaii, a bill that’s on track to become law may force emergency homeless shelters to cut more than 200 beds and turn away people who want to get off the streets.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 2559 in May, which seeks to make shelters more effective by mandating that they submit to annual financial audits, among other requirements.
The most contentious aspect of the measure is a requirement for each emergency shelter to have a “partitioned space” for each homeless family or individual.
The idea is to decrease shelter vacancy rates and encourage more people to get off the streets by giving them more privacy. Currently several shelters, including the Institute for Human Services, supply bunk beds or floor mats in large rooms rather than individual cubicles.
Given the cost of putting up partitions and limited space in existing facilities, a coalition of homeless service providers called Partners in Care sent Gov. David Ige a letter urging him to veto the measure and saying it could force shelters to eliminate over 200 beds.
But the bill didn’t appear on the list released this week of measures that Ige intends to veto. The governor said in a statement Thursday that because the bill wouldn’t go into effect for another year, the state has time to work with service providers to determine appropriate standards and address their concerns.
Ige acknowledged there may be a need to amend the bill next session.
“It really feels like the homeless service programs are being blamed for the homeless problem.” —Monique Yamashita, Ka Hale A Ke Ola
“Moving to a shelter is one of the first steps a person takes from living on the street to permanent housing, and we’ve learned that a lack of privacy can be a barrier for some,” he said. “We’ll continue working with the providers to improve the transition process.”
Monique Yamashita, the chief executive officer of a Maui homeless services organization called Ka Hale A Ke Ola, said the bill could force the nonprofit to cut its number of beds from 84 to 42.
Yamashita said in addition to the partitions, the requirement for an unspecified amount of storage space and a change in way the state subsidizes shelters could make it harder to operate. She said the bill was well-intentioned, but not well thought out.
The measure’s author, Sen. Jill Tokuda, didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.
“It really feels like the homeless service programs are being blamed for the homeless problem,” Yamashita said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re allies in this fight to end homelessness. We’re not the cause.”
State homelessness coordinator Scott Morishige said in testimony before the Legislature that the lack of privacy in shelters and lack of amenities like showers and lockers discourages homeless people from entering shelter.
Morishige also was unavailable for comment Thursday.
But Kimo Carvalho of the Institute for Human Services, which operates several shelters on Oahu, said he thinks adding partitions would not only cause the loss of many beds but increase the likelihood that homeless people would bring in weapons and drugs. He said partitions would also reduce air circulation and increase the possibility of bed bugs.
Carvalho estimated the bill could result in the loss of 166 IHS beds.
Maude Cumming, executive director of the Family Life Center on Maui, said that the requirement would likely force the shelter to remove 15 beds set aside for homeless men in a part of its shelter that is usually full.
Cumming said it makes sense that people living in shelters would want more privacy, but “the real question is, does that prevent you from coming in?”
“Honestly we would love to have separate spaces for each person, but when we were originally trying to meet the need, we felt like being able to serve more people was more important than a few people having more space,” she said. “It was a conscious decision to be able to serve more people.”
Carvalho said the change could force IHS to revert back to a lottery for beds and make it harder for people to stay for more than two consecutive nights.
The requirement for partitions isn’t the only concern that homeless providers had. The bill also requires shelters to have a yet-to-be-determined number of bathrooms and showers, as well as storage for personal possessions.
Yamashita said that her shelter does have storage space and restrooms for residents, but she’s not sure yet if they will conform to the requirements of the law.
In addition, the bill says state payments to shelters should be given “based on performance measures that are actually achieved.”
Cumming, who is also co-chair of the Maui Homeless Alliance, sent a letter to Ige last week saying that many service providers don’t have large cash reserves to be able to afford to provide services before receiving state subsidies, as currently occurs.
“The uncertainty of how providers will be measured and subsequently paid may undermine our ability to serve the homeless on Maui,” Cumming and her co-chair, Thelma Akita-Kealoha wrote.
“It’s going to be especially hard for a nonprofit to front money in hopes of getting reimbursed,” Yamashita said.
Cumming said that she hopes the administrative rules that still must be written will lessen the impact of the law. For example, requiring partial partitions rather than floor-to-ceiling partitions would make implementing it easier.
“We’re hoping that there’s still some room for input and discussion so that the impact that we expect it would have would not be as great as what we think,” she said.