Residents Say Voices Stifled on Homelessness

August 18, 2019, 4:58 PM HST (Updated August 19, 2019, 1:43 PM)
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Homeless man. Pixabay image.

Hawai‘i County could produce as many as 30 new domiciles available to Kailua-Kona’s homeless for occupancy come year’s end. Yet the county’s official proposition to do so continues to meet with pushback, even from segments of the community that have long pressed for solutions.

County officials hosted a public forum on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2019, at the West Hawai‘i Civic Center (WHCC), during which they ran through an overview of a project known as the Kukuiola & Village 9 Affordable Rental Community. The county also offered residents the opportunity to attend the meeting and share their concerns as part of the draft environmental assessment (draft EA) process.

Some attendees, however, were adamant the meeting failed to afford a sufficient platform for public voices to echo. They asserted instead that the process is speeding by far too quickly for most to react, while railroading whatever fast-mobilizing opposition it does happen to encounter.

“This is the first that they’ve invited the community, and they’re pretty much saying it’s starting in September,” said Terrie Mamac. “That’s next month. That’s crazy to me.”

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Technically, no construction would be likely before October, as the draft EA was published on Aug. 8 and allows for 30 days of public comment before a final EA is published. But Village 9 is still moving more quickly than almost any other government initiative could.

The county has been able to move on the project at such an uncharacteristic pace because an emergency proclamation regarding homelessness on Hawai‘i Island remains in effect. This allows for the rapid reallocation of resources and the bypassing of certain bureaucratic processes that tend to grind down initiatives, particularly those involving substantial land development, to a slow crawl.

However, county officials have held firm they would not force an unwanted project on the community. Sharon Hirota, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim and a primary figure in county homelessness response, continued to hold that same line Wednesday evening, while also expressing the government’s priorities.

“We really want this,” she said of the project. “The site is available. We have the funding. We’re ready to go. But we’re not going to build something the community is totally against.”

When pressed on what level of organized, negative response the community would have to muster to stop Village 9 in its tracks, or at least cause the county to do a double take, Hirota didn’t offer specifics.

She did note as options for official expression Wednesday’s public hearing, as well as a public comment period that extends until Oct. 8 and can be navigated either via email or traditional mail service by visiting the draft EA PDF.

Comments may also be submitted online at http://kukuiolavillage9.commentinput.com.

Some attendees, though, took issue with the public comment methodology the county employed Wednesday. Public comment is typically voiced over a microphone in the Hawai‘i County Council Chambers at WHCC with a three-minute time limit and is recorded for posterity.

At the meeting Wednesday, representatives from PBR Hawai‘i, which prepared the draft EA, offered a presentation and then broke the audience members who wished to remain into two groups. Everyone could choose their group, or go between the two.

The first group merely talked story, while another formed a line to offer complaints and issues that were paraphrased, written on a large pad of paper propped up by an easel and then stuck to the wall. No one spoke publicly and no sound was officially recorded.

Still, Hirota wanted to assure Hawai‘i Island residents that their suggestions would be noted and responded to in the final EA, even if the methodology wasn’t traditional.

But not everyone is convinced that matters.

“It’s just an exercise, and then they’re going to move forward and do it,” said Jill Wagner, who has lived in Hawai‘i for 25 years and attended Wednesday’s meeting. “We should have much more public discussion.”

As far as the draft EA itself, the report by PBR Hawai‘i anticipated a finding of no negative impact should the county choose to move the project forward.

Location and interest

Kukuiola Village 9 is the homeless housing component of what is essentially a 30 to 35-acre project. When built out entirely, roughly half the space will be utilized to house the homeless, while the other half will become state-sponsored, low-income housing.

Supported by a combination of county monies and state backing by way of the newly passed ‘Ohana Zones funding package, the homeless component of the project is funded through May of 2022.

At capacity, Village 9 will support between 100 and 120 small living spaces, each capable of housing either a single adult or a couple. Children and families will not live on the site.

The county doesn’t have enough money to complete an immediate build out of all the units, but Hirota said funding is available for the erection of 20 to 30 structures as part of a five-acre emergency shelter plan. That’s what the draft EA discussed on Wednesday covers.

The two most-voiced concerns from the public have been consistent since the concept of Village 9 was proposed in 2018. The first problem is where the county has chosen to locate the emergency shelter/long-term living space. The second is how it will entice the more problematic homeless away from business and tourism centers in Kailua Village to a camp miles mauka.

The chosen site for Village 9 is a lot on the corner of Kealakehe Parkway and Ane Keohokālole Highway, just a few blocks from Kealakehe High School and near a Hawaiian Homes neighborhood.

Mamac, whose toddler-aged son accompanied her to Wednesday’s forum, said she’s already experienced unsettling contact with homeless—and none even inhabit the area yet.

“I personally have had, apparently a homeless person, walk all their belongings up to my house and get mad at me because I didn’t let them wash clothes,” she said. “They walked up the back part of my house. At 8 o’clock at night.”

Children play basketball in her neighborhood during the evenings, Mamac continued. She expressed concern for their general safety, particularly when upwards of 150 homeless potentially move in next door to a low-income housing project the state is planning.

The state project, adjacent to the Village 9 lot, will be similar to the Kamakana Villages housing project just down the road, which saw 170 units fill up more or less immediately when they became available in January of 2018.

Mamac’s grandmother resides at Kamakana Villages, where Mamac visits twice a week to check in on her.

“Weekly, she sees police doing a raid or responding to an active domestic,” Mamac said. “This is broad daylight, sometimes it’s at 11 o’clock in the morning. She tells me that happens many times, sometimes multiple times in one day. (The county says the housing project) filled up, but it also filled up with the same problems. We just centrally located the problems to one area. And now we’re going to centrally locate them to someplace (so much) bigger?”

While Mamac focused on potential issues if the homeless come to the new shelter, Wagner paid more attention to what happens if they don’t.

“Most of those people who have those kind of illnesses do not want to be confined,” Wagner said of the segment of homeless suffering from either mental illnesses, drug addiction or both.

The percentage of homeless on the Big Island suffering from such afflictions hasn’t been quantified in any official capacity, but the Hawai‘i Island Police Department (HPD) has acknowledged such people represent a significant portion of the homeless, as well as a high volume of the population’s most problematic from a criminal perspective.

“They want a few services and they want to be out on the street, so what’s going to happen?” Wagner continued. “They’re all going to be on the streets by Hawaiian Homes, by our new regional park and all of these beautiful things we’re trying to build for the rest of the community. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a bad mix.”

Optimistic outlook

County officials, however, say they’re prepared to deal with all potential problems. Final design and the service provider that will run operations for the homeless section of the Kukuiola build out have yet to be finalized. However, whoever wins the contract will be required to provide 24-hour security.

Hirota said a gate will be installed at the entrance to Village 9 and manned around the clock. More security will come on at night after the majority of regular staff members, who will also be charged with maintaining onsite control, return home for the evening.

The county is in discussions with its Mass Transit Agency to add a second bus stop in the area. One already exists near the WHCC. Hirota said the hope is to pair another stop with shuttles piloted by the nonprofit community and/or faith-based community, which would theoretically stop at certain hubs at different times of the day or night to bring people to and from the shelter site.

“This is not going to solve our homeless problem, but we need to start somewhere,” Hirota said. “Security, wraparound services, 24/7 (operations)—we’ve heard everybody. We’re going to do it. We’re going to make this happen. And we’re going to make it happen correctly.”

Mamac, though, remained incredulous, saying county transportation plans will end up proving inadequate for a diverse set of travel needs.

“How are they going to get to Safeway?” she asked. “They’re going to be walking, walking right past our high school. This is not the solution.”

Regina Weller, of the 808 Homeless Task Force and a former outreach worker in Los Angeles, is already “boots on the ground” and engaging homeless in the area while attempting to convince them a mauka move is favorable.

She agreed with Hirota, who said county research by way of face-to-face interactions with homeless individuals has presented a mixed bag of interest. But despite noting 12 of 20 homeless expressed interest in Village 9 residence to her over a recent two-week period, Weller also agreed with some of Mamac’s and Wagner’s points.

“The homeless mindset is in survivor mode—’This is my territory because I felt safe here.’ It’s human nature,” Weller said. “Some have their hustle and they don’t want to be bothered. This is their territory. They mark their territory. But after a while, when you permeate a territory, they find out they’re not in charge.”

“When push comes to shove, will they really come?” Weller thought aloud. “I believe they will.”

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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