Hawaii legislative leaders promised in January that affordable housing and homelessness would top their priority list for the 2018 session.

As the session nears its Thursday conclusion, those promises appear to have been largely met.

On Friday lawmakers announced they would appropriate $30 million to construct “ohana zones.” They are also known as “safe zones,” essentially legal homeless encampments providing temporary shelter and services.

Senate Bill 2401 still faces floor votes next week, but its passage is virtually assured.

Rep Della Au Belatti Homeless Ohana Safe Zones during press conference after joint senate/house signed a bill for $30 million in funding.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti speaks at a press conference following the announcement of $30 million dedicated to “ohana zones.” From left are Sen. Josh Green, Rep. Tom Brower, Rep. John Mizuno and Sen. Will Espero. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under the legislation, the governor’s administration would be tasked with directing agencies to design, construct and service six centers — three on Oahu and one each on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. The administration must also identify the public land that would be suitable for the zones.

While each island has unique needs, House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said Kahauiki Villages, a recently built affordable plantation-style complex for homeless families near the Honolulu airport, can serve as a model.

“The idea here is to be very flexible. What might work on Oahu might not be the best plan for one of the neighbor islands.” — Rep. Della Au Belatti

Legislators acknowledged that Gov. David Ige has been skeptical of safe zones being the best route to permanent housing. But Belatti said the plan would provide flexibility to the administration and county leaders.

Combined with money for a variety of other programs designed to help Hawaii’s estimated 7,000-plus sheltered and unsheltered homeless people across the state, the total figure for homeless expenditures exceeds $50 million.

Woman sleeps at a bus stop along South Beretania street across the Moiliili Longs Drugs store.
A woman sleeps at a bus stop along South Beretania Street. There are more than 7,000 homeless people in the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lawmakers last week provided $15 million to fund existing homeless service programs, which was $3 million more than requested by the governor. Legislative leaders said the funds are in a lump sum rather than restricted to a specific program to allow the state homeless coordinator to use them where they are most needed.

They also appropriated $1 million for matching funds to the Hawaii Tourism Authority for homeless related projects. The nonprofit Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association will distribute the money for programs in resort areas.

Friday’s news follows the appropriation by the Legislature earlier this week of more than $200 million into the rental housing trust fund, which more than doubles its current budget to build more units.

Along with more than $300 million in additional housing-related funding increases and tax exemptions, the expectation is that there will be 25,000 new affordable rental housing units by 2030.

‘Beginning Of The End’

Lawmakers say they are under no illusion that they are solving the dual challenge of homelessness and affordable housing in a state that is arguably the most expensive in the nation.

But the hope is, as state Sen. Josh Green put it at the press conference, that the state is moving toward “the beginning of the end of the crisis.”

Rep. Tom Brower recalled that he and Rep. John Mizuno have been talking for years about safe zones, but only now is the Legislature ready to try them.

“Ten years ago we started looking into safe zones for our homeless population,” said Brower. “Many were reluctant to go into shelters or even permanent housing. This will provide a better option for many homeless people.”

Rep Della Au Belatti Homeless Ohana Safe Zones after signing a $30 million bill.
The scene at Friday’s press conference to announce the homeless legislation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Brower cautioned that the zones are “intermediate steps” and not permanent. He added that he personally wanted to call them “malama” zones, for the Hawaiian word that means to “take care.”

Besides the $30 million for ohana zones, expenditures in SB 2401 include $1 million for a medical respite pilot program and $800,000 for a new family assessment center.

“This year’s funding is just the beginning of the Legislature’s commitment to end homelessness.” — Sen. Will Espero

Another significant measure approved to help the homeless is Senate Bill 2027, which allocates $1.5 million for what is described as a coordinated statewide homeless initiative.

Several reporters asked how the new approach to homelessness might be different from previous efforts. They also wondered how residents might react to ohana zones in their neighborhoods.

Belatti said the homeless crisis requires creative solutions and that the ohana zones are a pilot project. She also said the time for a not-in-my-neighborhood attitude is over, because homelessness is evident in many places throughout the islands.

She said lawmakers were careful in how they crafted the $30 million proposal.

“This amount is our estimate of what the infrastructure and support services will cost in multiple sites across the state,” she said in a statement late Friday. “The idea here is to be very flexible. What might work on Oahu might not be the best plan for one of the neighbor islands.”

Legislators said they realized homelessness will not disappear overnight.

“This year’s funding is just the beginning of the Legislature’s commitment to end homelessness,” said Sen. Will Espero.

But a sense of accomplishment was palpable.

“This has been the most comprehensive year ever in funding homeless initiatives,” said Mizuno. “We are focused on addressing our homeless crisis rather than funding more homeless sweeps. We have focused our policies to provide our people in need with stability, a place to heal and the ability to become self-sufficient.”

Join the conversation in-person at Civil Beat’s upcoming Civil Cafe event, “Legislative Wrap-up 2018,” on Wednesday, May 2, at noon at the Capitol. Go to our RSVP page to register and get more information. 

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author