Only two projects for the homeless have been successfully implemented in the past several years.

In recent years, Honolulu has set aside millions of dollars to try to address the city’s growing homeless population but community opposition and difficulty finding suitable projects and sites is thwarting its efforts.

The City and County of Honolulu has set aside $21 million for facilities for the homeless and others in fiscal year 2024 but there are currently no capital projects identified that would use the money, according to Anton Krucky, director of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services.

That scenario reflects a pattern over the last six budget cycles where the Honolulu City Council has made anywhere from $10 million to $20 million available for homeless services and other projects that can include short- and long-term housing.

During that time the city has spent just $7.8 million across two projects, according to the Department of Community Services. 

Krucky said that the Community Revitalization Initiative is funded by general obligation bonds, meaning there is no requirement to use the funds that are available.

“It’s a matter of finding the right project,” he said. 

The Punawai Rest Stop, which received community revitalization funding in 2016, has been providing services like showers, laundry, mail and case management since opening in 2019. (Jake Indursky/Civil Beat/ 2023)

‘They Got It Right’

Back in 2016, the city found one project that fit the bill, acquiring the building that turned into the Punawai Rest Stop using funds from a previous version of the CRI.

The rest stop, based on a model piloted in Seattle, provides free services such as laundry, showers and toilets. The facility also provides mail service, Wi-Fi and case management services connecting clients to housing, medical services, employment and other benefits.

According to Mental Health Kokua CEO Greg Payton, the rest stop has exceeded expectations since opening in 2019. Payton said he had been aiming for 100 daily clients in its first 30 days but the rest stop hit that number on the third day.

“If you have a place for people to come, they will,” Payton said. 

An independent evaluation by University of Hawaii Manoa researchers found that the rest stop provided “much needed services” to a group of people that “need help meeting basic needs”. 

Payton said it allows an historically ignored population to “feel like they have dignity.” 

In 2022 the rest stop provided almost 37,000 showers and over 54,000 toilet uses, according to internally published data. 

Anna Pruitt, a faculty affiliate at UH Manoa and one of the coauthors of the evaluation, said that the bathroom usage alone has made the rest stop worth it.

“We need public infrastructure for being able to use the bathroom,” Pruitt said.

Payton praised the city for the work it has done to support the rest stop. He said the funding of the rest stop “shows where their values are,” and that “this is one place where they got it right.”

Hope For The Future

The Iwilei Resource Center, opened last week, aims to emulate that success and provide homeless patients with hygiene services, clothing and medical care and find permanent housing within one month.

The project received roughly $2.8 million from the CRI in 2019-2020, according to the Department of Community Services.

homelessness, healthcare, respite, medical, homeless
The Iwilei Resource Center is one of the facilities to benefit from Community Revitalization funding. (Provided by C.O.R.E/2023)

The only other project that received funding from the current version of the CRI was the relocation of the Sand Island Treatment Center, which received $5 million in 2019 according to DCS.

The center has generated controversy in recent years after Civil Beat reported its top executive was making nearly $500,000 annually. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor revealed the center had also underpaid dozens of counselors by hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Finding effective uses for the funding has been difficult for a host of reasons, said Budget and Fiscal Services director Andy Kawano.

Kawano said the Waikiki Vista acquisition, an effort to expand affordable housing stock, took a “long, long time,” tying up a lot of the city’s capital project capacity. In fact, the city considered using CRI funding for the part of the Waikiki Vista acquisition but instead used federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Even if the city identifies a suitable project, finding areas that actually want a CRI investment is another challenge. In the past, the Community Revitalization Initiative has called for projects “initiated by community stakeholders.”

While this year’s budget does not have that stipulation, recent proposals for facilities similar to the Punawai Rest Stop have been met with stiff community opposition

“There are communities who do not want homeless shelters or homeless services,” Kawano said. “That’s something we deal with all the time.”

But looking at the Punawai Rest Stop as an example, Pruitt said “there’s no evidence” the rest stop “has brought crime to the area or made things less safe.”

Both the administration and council are hopeful that this year will be different. The fund available for fiscal year 2024 is one of the least prescriptive ever, with no district-level spending limits or details on how projects can originate.

Council member Tyler Dos-Santos Tam, who sits on the Housing, Sustainability and Health Committee said that an improved relationship between the administration and council should aid spending efforts, especially in “areas that really need a lot of support when it comes to addressing homelessness.”

While Dos-Santos Tam said that he “absolutely” supports more facilities like rest stops, he added that it’s “going to take a basket of programs and options.”

“There’s no magic solution,” said Dos-Santos Tam.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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