With about two weeks to go in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers have already agreed to put more than $3 million toward homelessness. But while advocates remain optimistic that more money and bills will get approval this month, some policymakers say not to expect the Legislature to make a significant dent in homelessness this year.
Senate Bill 895, which is part of Gov. David Ige’s slew of homelessness proposals, is being discussed in conference committee. It would establish criminal penalties for trespassing on state land.
Scott Morishige, who serves as Ige’s coordinator of homelessness initiatives, says the bill is aimed at preventing theft and vandalism, but the Office of Hawaiian Affairs testified it would hurt Native Hawaiians who are homeless.
The American Civil Liberties Union testified that the bill seems to target opponents of building more telescopes on Mauna Kea after some of them camped out on state land to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
House Bill 554 would make it easier to force mentally ill people to undergo psychiatric treatments. That has raised concerns with the director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, who said the bill borders on violating constitutional rights.
Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations for Hawaii’s biggest homeless shelter organization, the Institute for Human Services, said the bills are necessary to discourage people from camping in parks and to help mentally ill people get health care more quickly.
“It’s looking at the causes of homelessness and looking at solutions that could be established there before (homeless people) even come to IHS,” he said.
Lawmakers don’t expect to solve the problem of homelessness anytime soon.
Rep. Tom Brower, the Housing Committee chairman who represents Waikiki, said there’s not much the Legislature can do other than providing funding.
“The mayor and the governor are in charge of our attempts to alleviate homelessness,” Brower said. “It’s not necessarily a situation of passing bills.”
At a budget meeting Tuesday, the House and Senate agreed to put $3 million toward rapid rehousing and $600,000 toward clean and sober housing. Morishige is hopeful that lawmakers will also decide to expand a program known as “Housing First” to the neighbor islands, which will require increasing funding of $3 million.
“We are appreciative of what’s been announced so far,” he said. “The session is not over yet so we still need to wait and see what happens.” Conference committees are scheduled to end April 28.
Greg Payton, a homeless service provider who is part of Partners in Care, a coalition of government agencies and organizations trying to address homelessness, says he’s optimistic about funding for programs to help runaway youth and to put chronically homeless people in housing quickly. He said compared to previous years, elected officials seem more knowledgeable about homelessness.
“The attitude is so much more positive in terms of trying to find systematic ways to end homelessness instead of criminalizing it,” he said. He noted Partners in Care doesn’t support Senate Bill 895.
Payton’s group has focused its lobbying efforts this year on initiatives like Housing First.
Big Island Sen. Josh Green, who leads the Human Services Committee, cautions that whatever the Legislature decides to appropriate for homelessness “will probably just keep us treading water.”
“The truth is we still don’t have a game-changer on homelessness,” Green said. “The reality will also be that until the last moment of the session we won’t see how much funding is there.”
Both Green and Brower are disappointed that bills that they supported haven’t been successful so far. Green, a physician, wanted to get homelessness classified as a health condition, an idea that attracted national media attention but didn’t appeal to the majority of his colleagues.
Brower wanted to create safe zones for homeless encampments, instead of allowing them to sprout up across the islands. But that proposal was watered down into a working group.
One bill that Carvalho is optimistic about would require the Department of Public Safety to provide identification cards to inmates before they’re released. He recalled four former inmates who he met on the streets of Kalihi who had been discharged from Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona with no ID cards and nowhere to go.
“This has been an ongoing problem so the fact that there’s legislation to help us is a big deal,” he said.
Senate Bill 964, another bill backed by Ige and Morishige, would give shelters more flexibility in terms of their layout, instead of mandating partitions between beds.
Morishige said he’s also hopeful that lawmakers will spend $200,000 to fund a pilot project to divert people who get arrested from jail. It’s based on a Seattle program that’s become a national model, but while the Senate was willing to fund it, the House so far has not.
“It’s a small amount of money that would make a huge difference,” Morishige said.
The Legislature is also considering creating a community court outreach project through Senate Bill 718.
Despite the optimism of Morishige and service providers, Brower says it’s unlikely that the Legislature will come up with all the funding that advocates want. Green thinks the Legislature is foolish not to do more.
“These individuals who are struggling, in many cases they’re the most disenfranchised among us and they don’t have the luxury of powerful special interests backing the legislation,” Green said. “At the end of the day there’s just more well funded powerful advocates fighting for funding and programs that are different.”