As thousands of Hawaii residents teeter on the financial brink, the state is increasing funding to clear homeless people off state lands.

Gov. David Ige’s administration asked lawmakers for $5 million for homeless sweeps – also known as the Stored Property and Trash/Debris Removal Program. Lawmakers granted $7 million in the state budget that passed the Legislature Friday. It now goes to Ige for his consideration.

“The reality is we have state lands that do have individuals trespassing or camping without permission in every part of the state,” said Scott Morishige, Ige’s coordinator on homelessness.

Crews cleanup Kuilei Cliffs Beach Park homeless tents and belongings.
State crews removed more than 5,000 tons of debris from public lands in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The program does not provide social services. It covers property storage and trash removal when “unauthorized encampments are encountered on state lands,” according to Amanda Stevens, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services.

Workers removed over 5,000 tons of debris in 2019, she said. 

Previously, the cost of sweeps was eating into departmental funds budgeted for other purposes, Morishige said.

“In the past, departments were just not able to bear that cost,” he said. “The practical impact of it is there were some parts of our state where we were just not able to respond to encampments that were, in a lot of areas, in very precarious locations.”

The move is raising eyebrows at the American Civil Liberties Union, which had applauded the allocation of CARES Act funds for rental assistance and unemployment insurance for local families.

“But we are alarmed that $7 million is instead being used to facilitate sweeps of those same people,” Director Josh Wisch said in a statement.

The additional funding brings the total budget for DHS homeless services to $22,615,635, an amount large enough to house Hawaii’s 3,650 unsheltered people — with two people per apartment — for six months at market rents, Wisch said.

“It is disappointing the State would prioritize the storage and disposal of people’s property over other critical needs and services such as the double-bucks food program, mental health treatment, or filling the gap in eligibility for federal stimulus checks,” he said. “We hope the Governor and state agencies will embrace this opportunity to focus on services, rather than punishment.”

Before and during sweeps, workers try to connect homeless people to services and housing resources, Morishige said.

“I get that’s not always the primary focus, but it’s a real part of what we do,” he said.

“The challenge is, yes, there is a need for prevention. But I think there also is a need for the state to be able to manage state properties.” — Scott Morishige, state homeless coordinator

The increased funding for sweeps comes as experts predict a forthcoming wave of evictions and formerly financially stable people falling into homelessness.

The state’s latest Housing Planning Study, released before COVID-19 hit, estimated that a quarter of all Hawaii households were at risk of homelessness, meaning they would be forced out of their homes after two months or less of missed paychecks.

If only 10% of those households lost their primary source of income, approximately 14,000 households would need assistance to keep them from becoming homeless, according to the study.

“It’s possible there may be an increase in people residing outdoors,” Morishige said.

Asked why the state doesn’t instead allocate the $7 million toward homeless prevention, Morishige said there is already assistance available through the CARES Act.

“The challenge is, yes, there is a need for prevention,” he said. “But I think there also is a need for the state to be able to manage state properties.”

He added: “It’s not as simple as if we just had enough housing vouchers, then it would stop people from being in those types of situations.” 

Hawaii House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said the funds will support transportation services for individuals who do want to enter a shelter. They will also allow the state to pay to store people’s belongings instead of leaving them in public places or throwing them out, as Honolulu did in the past, Luke said.

“The homeless individuals, if there’s an outbreak, they have to go somewhere. We can’t just leave them in an encampment,” she said. “It would be just as inhumane if we don’t provide the service and take them to shelter or a facility and provide the transportation.”

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