As Oahu continues to struggle with one of the worst rates of homelessness in the nation, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s final budget proposal as mayor includes little new funding to tackle the problem. 

City officials said they’re doing all they can to provide services that include housing vouchers, outreach and hygiene centers.

“We don’t have any increases this year,” said Honolulu Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland. “It’s sustaining all these programs.”

An estimated 2,400 people live without shelter on Oahu. An additional 2,000 are homeless. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

While Witty-Oakland said the city increased operational funding to address homelessness throughout Caldwell’s tenure from practically zero to $10 million, that’s a drop in the bucket of the city’s nearly $3 billion proposed operating budget. It represents one third of one percent. By comparison, the administration budgeted four times that – nearly $40 million – for vacant positions. 

In Caldwell’s capital proposal, human services represent 0.8% of the nearly $1.3 billion budget. That’s about $10 million.

“We haven’t been doing enough,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. “We’ve got to take care of the people who are living on our streets.”

City officials said if they’re going to increase housing funds, the state needs to boost its financial support of mental and behavioral health services. 

“It’s our professional opinion that unless we layer in the health care, we will not be responsibly spending that tax dollar on behalf of the community,” Witty-Oakland said.

Honolulu Needs State Help

Oahu is home to over 4,400 homeless people, according to the latest Point-In-Time count, a survey that is widely considered to be an undercount. The problem is consistently ranked among the most pressing challenges the island faces. In the most recent National Community Survey, 95% of Honolulu residents surveyed said the impact of the homeless population on the community is a very important or essential issue. 

The issue is dire under normal circumstances but has only become more worrisome as COVID-19 spreads throughout Hawaii. Oahu’s large unsheltered population, which includes elderly people with existing health issues and limited access to hygiene services, is especially at risk of catching and passing on the deadly illness. While the CDC has recommended keeping public bathrooms open and stocked with supplies, Honolulu has done the opposite.

Caldwell’s proposal allocates no additional city funds for Housing First, the program the city touts as the gold standard solution to get people into stable housing. With the help of state funds, vouchers will increase by 60 for a total of 375. The vouchers cost $25,000 per person per year, which includes housing and supportive services, Witty-Oakland said.

HONU Stadium Park homeless tents. HONU has a portrable shower/bath trailer that gives residents the opportunity to get cleaned up.
Honolulu’s HONU program, now at Old Stadium Park, offers overnight shelter and referrals to housing programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

More vouchers are needed, and the state should pay for them, said Marc Alexander, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Housing. Without a health department, the city can’t offer the behavioral health services the population needs. 

“Housing First is not just housing units. It’s the supportive services, and that is where we really need the state to step up,” he said. “Unless those things are addressed concurrently with housing, we are not going to make the kind of progress that we need.”

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, said state departments – and the Legislature, until it went on recess – have been working to build capacity for more mental and behavioral health services, including increasing stabilization beds and attempting to use Medicaid dollars. However, efforts will only become more challenging as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak become clear. 

The state provides most of its homeless service funding through its general fund, which is supported by a tourism industry that is getting slammed by the impacts of the coronavirus.

“We’re facing a pretty significant economic slowdown,” he said. “It’s critical that the limited resources we have are not further reduced so we can maintain the progress we have made.” 

City officials said they’re already doing a lot with the help of state and federal funds, including: 

  • Hale Mauliola, a short-term emergency shelter on Sand Island that serves up to 104 individuals at a time; 
  • The Punawai Rest Stop, a hygiene center in Iwilei with free restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities that serves about 200 guests per day;
  • An outreach navigation program run by the Institute for Human Services through which 11 petitions have been filed to involuntarily commit people with behavioral health issues;  
  • A landlord engagement program run by Partners in Care that gives incentives to property owners to rent to challenging populations; 
  • HONU – Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered persons – a mobile pop-up shelter to which police officers direct unsheltered homeless people for overnight shelter, food, laundry and referrals to housing programs.

In addition, the Department of Community Services has invested $31.4 million in private housing projects since 2015 that yielded 278 units of affordable housing in nine projects – all of which support households earning 60% of the area median income.  

“We try to create flow,” Alexander said. “So as people move out of shelters, emergency and transitional, we move new people in.”

‘We Can Spend More’

To some extent, current efforts are working. The city said 5,307 homeless clients on Oahu were placed into permanent housing last year alone. Since 2015, the homeless veteran population has decreased by an estimated 18% and the number of homeless family members has gone down 42%, according to PIT count data.

Mayor Caldwell Head of Honolulu Housing Office Marc Alexander during briefing on homeless solutions held at the Capitol.
Marc Alexander, director of Honolulu’s housing office, said the city is doing all it can to address homelessness.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But much more is needed, especially as new people continue to fall into homelessness and the unsheltered population on Oahu increases.

“Unless we stop that inflow, it’s like having a hole in the boat,” he said. “We need to stop people from becoming homeless to begin with, so we need more mental health services, substance disorder treatment, stabilization beds, all these things that we can’t fund, that we can’t do.”

A 2017 Corporation for Supportive Housing report estimated that 1,807 new units of permanent supportive housing – 1,645 for individual adults and 162 for families – were needed to address chronic homelessness on Oahu.

From 2016 to 2019, the city has added only 190 individual units and 133 family units, according to the mayor’s office. Based on the 2017 report, Honolulu remains short 1,455 individual supportive housing units and 29 units for families.

“We need more housing, period,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services. “The rail was supposed to be an opportunity for us to build a lot more urban housing, and we just really need to make that happen. I just wish it would happen faster.”

Sen. Stanley Chang, who chairs the Senate Housing Committee, said all levels of government should be doing more to house the homeless population. He said he hasn’t seen any leader sincerely attempt to address the scope of the problem.

“We need to start looking at new out-of-the-box ideas from everywhere to move the needle on this housing shortage,” he said. “I’m just not confident today that we have the tools and the vision to actually end the housing shortage or even to make it better.”

His proposed solution, called ALOHA Homes, effectively died at the Capitol this session after leadership assigned it to an insurmountable number of committees.

Exactly whose duty it is to tackle homelessness in Hawaii isn’t clearly defined, Chang said. According to Witty-Oakland, it was considered solely a state responsibility for years.

When we looked around and saw that the individuals were in our parks, on our sidewalks, our right-of-ways, our mayor decided that is our responsibility to address,” she said.

The city started its Housing First program in 2015 with $2.5 million, the first time homelessness was funded in Honolulu’s budget, Witty-Oakland said.

The strategy, Alexander said, is “not just investing money, but making sure we build capacity and bandwidth in our providers.

“That’s not something that happens overnight because this is a hard population. We know we need more, and gradually, we’re ramping up.”

Kobayashi said there is room in the city’s budgets to do more for homeless people. In the capital budget, she noted that Caldwell proposed $43.6 million for a partial redevelopment of the Neil Blaisdell Center. The city has more urgent needs like the development of affordable housing, Kobayashi said.

“People are not happy now living in our city, and many local people are leaving because they can’t afford to stay here,” she said.

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine also said more drastic action is needed. In a proposed budget amendment, she replaced capital funding for renovations and improvements to the Blaisdell Center and Ala Moana Park with money for rapid housing, mobile hygiene centers, addiction rehabilitation facilities, mental health treatment facilities and quarantine and medical triage facilities to address COVID-19.

I have always believed we can spend more to deal with the homeless problem,” she said. 

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