A mile from the nearest bus stop sits a 500-acre former correctional facility that used to hold incarcerated youth. Young people still make the trek to the complex on the Windward coast of Oahu, but now it’s by choice to escape the streets. Some arrive with luggage, while others show up empty-handed. 

The Residential Youth Services and Empowerment, a homeless shelter in Kailua, began providing services to people aged 18 to 24 in 2017 with just enough private funding to maintain 20 beds, a staff of 10 and one outreach worker.

“Our biggest stresses were coming from our success,” Executive Director Carla Houser said. “More young people knew about us, our outreach team was connecting with more young people, and we didn’t have a bed for them because we filled up quickly from the beginning.”

In 2018, RYSE became a beneficiary of a new state-funded pilot program aimed at finding new ways to address the growing problem of homelessness in the islands. The additional $1.8 million allowed the shelter to add 10 beds, in addition to a medical clinic, behavioral health services, housing case management and more on-the-ground outreach. 

RYSE Homeless Youth Shelter wide.
Residential Youth Services and Empowerment is one of the recipients of the Ohana Zones program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2018, the Legislature appropriated $30 million for nonprofits and county government homeless programs. In 2019, lawmakers added $2 million to renovate two shelters in Kalaeloa.

The state required a minimum of six projects – three on Oahu and one each on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island. Within three years, the program exceeded the limit by creating 20 projects, providing more services and shelter capacity statewide.

Funding for the program is set to expire in 2023, but the state’s point man on homelessness, Scott Morishige, said the governor’s office is considering asking for an extension during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. 

State Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Hawaii island and is on the joint state House and Senate committee, supports the project but stressed that the state budget is limited and needs are great.

“I am agreeable to an extension, but we’re also being realistic that we don’t know yet what the state’s budget is going to be because of Covid,” San Buenaventura said, adding that the Legislature may get a sense of the budget toward December or January.

She also noted the pilot program wasn’t intended to be permanent but was meant to create the infrastructure so the state could qualify for federal funds.  

Houser hopes the Legislature will extend the program, but she isn’t waiting. Her staff is already busy seeking donations and other private funding to expand the program. One thing she would like to do is conduct an impact study on the homeless disparities on the Leeward Coast and look for a possible site location.  

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s going away, and we will have to shift to private funding, which was our original model,” Houser said.

“So many young people we’re serving are coming out of state systems, whether it’s child welfare, foster care or child mental health systems. They’re aging out of these programs and there isn’t a support system in place.”

Villages of Maili is funded by Ohana Zones.
Catholic Charities Hawaii received $7.5 million from the Ohana Zones program to renovate the Villages of Maili on the Leeward Coast, an 80-unit emergency shelter and transitional housing program. Courtesy: Catholic Charities Hawaii

Advocates say the program has been a huge success in achieving its ultimate goal of helping homeless people transition to permanent housing.

As of Sept. 30, projects funded by Ohana Zones preserved 358 beds and units and created 469 new beds. The projects have served more than 5,000 people and transitioned 1,100 into permanent housing.

Catholic Charities Hawaii renovated the Villages of Maili on the Leeward Coast, an 80-unit emergency shelter and transitional housing facility, with its $7.5 million. Correction: An earlier version of this story said Catholic Charities built the Villages of Maili. 

Hawaii island even saw its first Ohana Zones project when the old Hilo Hospital building transformed into Keolahou Assessment Center, providing 50 beds. 

“One of the things that was beneficial about the Ohana Zones program is that it really enabled us to address homelessness statewide and not just on the island of Oahu,” Morishige said in an interview. “Because homelessness is a statewide issue. It impacts every part of Hawaii.”

Challenges the pilot program faced were strict deadlines to building housing units were delayed by the pandemic, and following federal guidelines that don’t necessarily include nontraditional housing or shelter projects, such as tiny homes or short-term mobile tents. 

During the program’s early development, there was confusion over the broad definition of Ohana Zones that spilled into the 2018 governor’s race. Gov. David Ige was initially critical of the program but eventually signed the bill after being reassured that it would differ from a separate program establishing tent cities known as “safe zones.”

Hawaii is No. 2 for the highest rate of homelessness in the nation after New York, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

A row of tents along Moliili Neighborhood Park along South Beretania Street during COVID-19 pandemic. October 19, 2020
The Ohana Zone program was aimed at providing more permanent solutions to the problem of homelessness that would allow people to find permanent shelter. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

State data measuring the rate of unsheltered individuals in Hawaii peaked in 2016 at nearly 8,000 people. That number has decreased since then, with less than 7,000 people recorded in 2020. There is no data available on how many people are living on the streets due to the pandemic halting the single-day Point in Time Count. 

However, the state continued to record sheltered individuals and found that 1,185 people were living in emergency shelters, 640 in transitional housing and 28 in a safe haven on Jan. 25. 

To date, two-thirds of the Ohana Zones funding has been spent, which is more then $20.8 million.

“They used most of the money the way we envisioned them to, but there’s also this HONU-type project, which is very helpful,” San Buenaventura said. “We have to figure out how to continue funding those projects.”

Despite the pandemic, Ohana Zones was able to remain flexible when it comes to contracting programs like building two new tiny home projects on Hawaii island and converting the HONU project into a Provisional Outdoor Screen and Triage program to help people maintain social distancing.

While it’s unclear what will happen to the program, some counties have already been prioritizing funding other programs funded by Ohana Zones. For example, the City and Honolulu are looking to allocate federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for HONU.

Morishige said he knew that the funding wouldn’t last forever but it was a way “to look at long-term sustainability.”

“It’s important to realize the real impact of the Ohana Zones program was not just the short-term benefit that it provided in helping to address people coming out of homelessness and into communities, but it really was the ability to catalyze different efforts by the counties that leverage other county funding and other resources to create a longer term investment.”

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