Hawaii lawmakers are expected to consider a number of measures aimed at dealing with Hawaii’s continuing homelessness problem this legislative session, including more money for the state’s Ohana Zones program.

The 2022 session is set to begin Jan. 19.

Rep. Ryan Yamane, who chairs a key committee on homelessness, plans to introduce a package of bills but says he is still meeting with advocates and service providers before finalizing it.

Service providers and outreach workers are advocating for measures that would provide more mental health services for people struggling on the streets and that would tackle income discrimination.

But so far the top priority for key lawmakers is extending funding for Ohana Zones, a state-funded pilot program that is set to expire in 2023. Ohana Zones provides basic services like health care and transportation with the goal of moving people into housing.

Scott Morishige, the state’s coordinator on homelessness, said the administration is considering requesting $15 million for Ohana Zones and extending the program to 2026.

Scott Morishige, State of Hawaii State Coordinator on Homeless speaks to media during Governor Ige's press conference on homeless update. 27 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
State homelessness coordinator Scott Morishige says the administration is considering legislation to expand funding for Ohana Zones. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“We look forward to seeing the specific proposals coming out of the Legislature,” Morishige said. “We’re supportive of any efforts that would increase affordable rental housing inventory, increase access to help people get into the units we have, and programs that also help provide services to provide wrap-around support such as (to) individuals facing behavioral health challenges.”

Advocates for homeless people hope that this year the state budget will allow more money to be put toward services and programs, unlike last year when pandemic-related budget cuts were implemented.

Gov. David Ige recently outlined a $16.9 billion budget proposal that reflected increased tax collections and an increase in what lawmakers have to spend in the coming session.

Some measures that died last session may be resurrected. One of those bills that could be reintroduced in January could prompt more landlords to accept subsidies like housing vouchers. 

Kenna StormoGipson, director of housing policy for Hawaii Appleseed, said many apartment advertisements like Craigslist, Trulia and Apartments.com make it clear that they don’t accept Section 8, the federal housing subsidy for low-income families, often discouraging people with lower incomes from applying. 

“It’s really disheartening,” StormoGipson said.

Bills that died last session would have prohibited rental discrimination of Section 8 in advertisements and in a new section of state law. 

Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, is pushing for more behavioral health services.

“For me it’s about how we access services, specifically mental health treatment for people who really need it but they’re not able to consent,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been doing assisted community treatment, but we probably need some more amendments to the law to make it a little easier to access treatment.” 

The annual statewide Point-in-Time count of homeless people in Hawaii was canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic, so it’s unclear whether homelessness has increased.

The count is scheduled for Jan. 27, according to Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, an organization which coordinates with homeless services on the island.

People gather along River Street laying on cardboard and and makeshift living areas.
People gather along River Street lying on cardboard and makeshift living areas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Thielen said she hopes that the numbers don’t increase, especially since the pandemic has forced congregate shelters to limit capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“The issue of homelessness is a big issue right now at the policy level and the practice level,” Thielen said. 

The House is considering extending funding for Ohana Zones, looking at ways to support the City and County of Honolulu’s CORE program, and trying to figure out how to increase wrap-around services like case management, housing services, financial management and more.

Chair Ryan Yamane, Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs asks testifiers some questions during hearing.
Rep. Ryan Yamane, who chairs the Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee, plans to introduce a package addressing homelessness. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Rep. Ryan Yamane, who chairs the Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee, said he’s still meeting with IHS and other service providers to generate more ideas before drafting bills. 

“We want to come up with a wide variety of not only bills and options, but ways to help get them the needed care,” Yamane said, noting that “not all homeless are in one category.”

Morishige said the governor’s budget proposal does not include any additional requests for homeless services.

Morishige points to other departments like the Department of Human Services that provides $30 million for homeless services annually, including $10.8 million over the next two years from the American Rescue Plan Act.

He said the amount covers funding for homeless core services such as emergency and transitional shelter, state homeless emergency grant and housing placement programs, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, family assessment centers, homeless outreach and civil legal services.

The request to expand funding for the Ohana Zones program is on top of the money for core services, Morishige said.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, says that homeless programs will be a focus this session.

“I think we have to concentrate on these efforts,” Luke said in an interview. “If we don’t, the homeless situation will almost exponentially get worse.

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