Hawaii’s persistent homelessness crisis will be near the top of the agenda for the 2018 Legislative session, highlighted by more than a dozen bills to create legal encampments known as “safe zones.”

Lawmakers enthusiastic about the idea envision the areas as a refuge for people who they say are endlessly being shuffled around in sweeps.

Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless are focusing their efforts this session on securing funding for programs that move people from the streets into permanent housing.

Person sleeps on bench Capitol Building Homeless at around 6am opening day of Legislature.
A man sleeps on a bench in front of the Capitol at 6 a.m. on the opening day of  the 2018 Legislative session. Gov. David Ige and House Speaker Scott Saiki both say homelessness is a top priority this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Those groups take a measured approach to the idea of safe zones.

“That is a very tricky subject for us,” Pedro Haro of PHOCUSED said of safe zones. “We have concerns about how it would be implemented but we are open to learning.”

PHOCUSED works to “protect the interest of Hawaii’s most vulnerable people,” according to its mission statement.

 A bill by Rep. Tom Brower, who chairs the House Housing Committee, would create “homeless villages” of up to 100 “homes” at the Sand Island Recreation Area, Campbell Industrial Park and the state land near the Waianae Boat Harbor.

“The intention is just to create smaller dwellings that people will be willing to stay in,” Brower said. “It could be a shipping container, it could be what we call igloos, but some sort of stationary structure.”

Land near the Waianae Boat Harbor is already home to an established homeless community known as Puuhonua O Waianae.

When the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness met in October to discuss safe zones, members of the Waianae encampment argued their community should be considered a legal encampment. Their idea appears to have gained traction this year with a measure that would exempt people on the land from criminal trespassing laws.

Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim has plans underway to transform vacant land in Kona into a homeless village. A bill would create two sites on the Big Island, each with 25 “homes,” in Hilo and Kona.

Hawaii County displayed a fiberglass dome near the site of a proposed safe zone in October 2018. County of Hawaii

In his safe zone bill, House Human Services Committee Chair Rep. John Mizuno referred to the areas as “ohana zones.”

Another measure would allow homeless families to camp on state land in exchange for working on park maintenance.

Yet another offers general guidelines for a safe zone and leaves it up to the Department of Human Services to add details.

Other measures related to homelessness include four bills that would create mobile clinics, or vans that provide medical services to homeless people. Those and other measures aim to curb the frequent use of emergency rooms by some homeless people.

measure that would waive the $10 fee for birth certificates might make things easier for outreach workers who spend a lot of time getting their clients ID cards and birth certificates.

Keep Funding Programs That Work

Gov. David Ige called homelessness the greatest challenge to Hawaii in his State of the State address. 

His administration’s legislative package doesn’t include bills related to homelessness but his supplemental budget request asks for $15 million to continue running homeless programs at their current level for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The Department of Human Services would spend that money on outreach, rapid re-housing and Housing First, a program aimed at identifying chronically homeless people and quickly moving them into permanent, supportive housing.

“If that program is not being funded again there’s a risk of people falling back into homelessness,” said Scott Morishige, the state homelessness coordinator.

PHOCUSED and Partners In Care, a coalition of service providers, are asking lawmakers to increase the funding to homeless programs.

“For many years the homelessness rate in Hawaii was going up and up and up. Last year we finally started to turn the corner. We really think part of that is investing more in these proven effective homeless programs,” said Gavin Thornton, advocacy committee chair for Partners in Care.

Last year’s annual point-in-time count found a 9 percent drop in the state’s homeless population, the first decrease in eight years.

Morishige said the administration supports efforts to increase social service funding, “as long as it doesn’t put other resources in jeopardy.”

In light of limited state resources, a few measures aim to provide more state money to address homelessness. Among them:

  • HB1898 – Increases the general excise and use tax by 0.5 percentage point for six years and dedicates revenues to address homelessness.
  • HB2597 – Authorizes transient accommodation brokers to collect taxes from short-term rental operators, with some of the revenue dedicated to homelessness initiatives.
  • HB2012 and SB2700 – allocates funds from the transient accommodation tax to address homelessness in tourist and resort areas.
  • HB1925 – Establishes a three-year pilot project to create a state lottery and dedicate revenues to homelessness issues.

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