A state-funded program that has helped more than 1,300 homeless people transition into permanent housing but is due to expire next year may be extended through 2028, according to draft legislation being considered by the Hawaii Senate.

The Senate bill also would eventually make the Ohana Zones program permanent by transferring responsibility for it from the state’s point man on homelessness to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. A separate House bill has a more limited scope and would only extend the program through 2026.

Both measures have survived past a key deadline last week at the midpoint of the 2022 session, although funding for the program must still be determined by lawmakers.

Ohana Zones, which provides services like health care and transportation with a goal to transition homeless people into housing, has grown from funding six to 20 projects since it first began in 2018. As of November, it has served 5,510 people statewide, placing more than 1,300 into permanent housing, according to the state’s website.

Kumuwai is a recipient of the Ohana Zones program.
Kumuwai is a city-owned building in Honolulu that’s funded by the Ohana Zones Program. It provides housing and services to adults 62 years and older. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Scott Morishige, the state’s coordinator on homelessness, said the collaboration with counties made the program successful.

“Ohana Zones is a tool to facilitate partnerships and a more unified approach to address homelessness,” he said in an interview. “We have to have the flexibility to test new ideas but also realize that nobody can do it by themselves.”

The Legislature initially appropriated $30 million in 2018 to fund nonprofit and county government programs aimed at addressing homelessness. In 2019, lawmakers added $2 million to renovate several shelters under the Ohana Zones funding.

Morishige said the administration is asking for $15 million as part of the extension.

“I strongly believe we need to sustain not only the resources but the partnerships that helped make the Ohana Zones program a success,” he said. The Senate bill would put the program under the auspices of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. Both the housing authority and Morishige fall under the state Department of Human Services.

Taimane Taimane Passi, a community service specialist for Kumuwai, said she hopes the Ohana Zones program will continue. .
Taimane Passi, a community service specialist for Kumuwai, said she hopes the Ohana Zones program will continue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The bills received no opposition. Senate Bill 3168 will have to clear the House committees on Housing, Human Services and Homelessness, Housing and Finance.

House Bill 2512 must clear the Senate Committees on Housing, Water and Land, Government Operations, Ways and Means and the Judiciary.

The House bill initially appropriated $15 million for Ohana Zones, but lawmakers put that amount on hold pending further discussion.

The Senate bill has yet to set an appropriated amount.

Either measure could wind up in a conference committee later in the session, where lawmakers from the House and Senate meet to hash out their differences on bills. A final funding level for the Ohana Zones program could be decided then, if the bills make it that far.

The expiration date for the program has been looming over the aid workers and homeless people who have benefited from it. Initially, Ohana Zones was to end in 2019, but lawmakers extended the program and its funding to 2023, helping to expand its services.

Taimane Passi is a community service specialist for Kumuwai, a permanent senior housing facility that depends heavily on Ohana Zone funds. The money pays for 20 of the 30 units at the facility, which serves adults who are at least 62 years old and have experienced homelessness.

The end of the program may mean that service providers have to find another source of funding and possibly new housing for their clients.

“I’m a little bit worried, especially for the clients themselves, because this is supposed to be long term for them,” Passi said.

Gerald Cormier.
Gerald Cormier lived in Kumuwai for nearly a year before he transitioned into another permanent housing program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Passi said she is working on helping the tenants move into other long-term housing programs. If the program gets extended, that could change.

One of the tenants she helped transfer into a senior independent living facility in early December was 64-year-old Gerald Cormier, who moved into Kumuwai nearly a year ago after living in his van for eight years.

Cormier hopes the Ohana Zones program will continue, saying “it goes beyond putting someone in a house” by giving them emotional support as well.

“It’s needed for the right people, and it works well,” Cormier said. “If you use it the proper way and not take advantage of it, it’s a stepping stone.”

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