Hawaii had the fourth-largest decrease in homelessness in the nation in 2018, state homelessness coordinator Scott Morishige told legislators Thursday. But they criticized the pace of progress for creating ohana zones for the homeless.

Morishige and local officials involved in addressing homelessness testified before at state House hearing Thursday.

Morishige touted the state’s progress, which he said included a 22 percent reduction in homeless families and a 21 percent reduction in veteran homelessness. Hawaii still has the highest per capita rate of homelessness compared with any state, but the percentage of unsheltered homeless people has fallen by 19 percent and there’s been a 38 percent reduction in unaccompanied homeless youth, he said.

Scott Morishige homeless presser. 21 july 2016
State Homeless Coordinator Scott Morishige said steady progress is being made. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But Reps. Joy San Buenaventura and Della Au Belatti said the state hasn’t moved fast enough to spend $30 million the Legislature allocated last year for ohana zones.

Lawmakers envision ohana zones as secure areas where homeless people can live for a year or two and receive a plethora of social and medical services.

In December, Gov. David Ige announced $17.3 million will be distributed among nonprofits Residential Youth Services and Empowerment and Catholic Charities, as well as Hawaii County and the City and County of Honolulu over a three-year period. The governor’s office is still working with the newly elected mayors of Kauai and Maui counties to identify ways to use the remaining $13 million.

After the hearing, Belatti said the state isn’t planning to finalize its sites on Oahu until March and the Legislature may not know the sites of the neighbor island ohana zones until June.

“They’re moving so slowly,” she said. “They’re telling us that they’re using the money but we’re not going to see the results (for months)… We wish they were moving more quickly.”

Morishige told Civil Beat that the state is taking time to choose ohana zone sites in order to work closely with the counties and tailor the zones to each community.

“We want to take the time to design programs to fit within the framework of what we know have been effective,” he said.

The law also requires that ohana zones be located on public land and it can be tough to find land with enough infrastructure, he said.

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