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Roadmap For Homelessness And Housing Falls Short of Council’s Expectations

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Homelessness continues to be a big problem on the Big Island. File photo.

Hawai’i County Council members expected a roadmap for how to end homelessness on the Big Island, but were mostly disappointed with what was presented.

“To me, I’m not, like, ‘Wow, yes. This is a revelation and ephipany’,” Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Yeah. Duh’.”

On Tuesday, officials with the county Office of Housing and Community Development and consultant Iain De Jong, president and CEO of OrgCode Consulting, presented “A Strategic Roadmap for Homelessness and Housing” during a meeting of the County Council’s Governmental Operations, Relations and Economic Development Committee.

The committee wanted specifics but instead got what one council member called a primer.

Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung said the information presented was not a roadmap but a conceptual plan.

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Council members thought a roadmap should include items such as cost estimates for projects and proposals, plans to address homelessness, and detail how the county will spend millions of additional annual funds — approved by the council in Bill 111 earlier this year — to tackle the issue of homelessness on the island.

“A roadmap is something that’s going to take me from here to there,” Chung said. “I analogize this, as I said earlier, to going to war. If the Ukrainians put this thing together in their battle against Russia, they may as well call it quits already.”

The council in March approved Bill 111, which was signed into law as Ordinance 22-26 by Mayor Mitch Roth. The measure, introduced and championed by Chung, created a new fund that will collect no less than 75% of the difference between the county’s two tiers of property tax on second luxury homes, or $2.50 per $1,000, and only from Tier 2 properties. The percentage collected also will remain the same if property taxes are adjusted.

The funds generated by the five-year program will be used for county-sponsored programs to address housing and homelessness.

According to data from the annual Point-In-Time Count released in April by Bridging the Gap, a coalition of agencies working to end homelessness on neighbor islands, 837 persons were counted as homeless on the Big Island in 2022. It said 283 were sheltered and 554 were unsheltered.

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On July 1, the new ordinance took effect and is expected to generate an estimated $9 million this fiscal year to address homelessness.

The council in July also approved Resolution 442, which requested the Office of Housing and Community Development to create and submit a plan to the council by this month, and annually thereafter, to provide a progress report on the use of those funds. The strategic roadmap presented Tuesday is the result.

The plan was developed through a process facilitated by the county housing agency and De Jong and his Canadian-based company OrgCode Consulting, which works with non-profits, non-governmental organizations and governments to prevent, reduce and end homelessness.

The plan brought together stakeholders from various sectors in the community, including nonprofits and people on the front line of the homelessness issue, people who have the experience of being homeless, business leaders, philanthropists, land owners, developers and others.

“We wanted to design a process that ensured that we would hear the voices of the community and take into consideration the concerns and their input on what they think would be the most powerful way of addressing homelessness,” county housing administrator Susan Kunz told the committee Tuesday.

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Over the course of about a month, 115 out of 156 invited people met as focus groups to provide input about what they thought would be meaningful and needed to address homelessness. It culminated in a one-day strategic planning event Aug. 12, in which 59 stakeholders participated.

From those focus groups and the in-person charette, a list of priorities was developed. The top priority was permanent supportive housing, De Jong said.

Rounding out the top five priorities were: detoxification and treatment for people experiencing homelessness, housing that supports and serves families with minor children, increasing the supply of affordable housing in general, and a one-stop housing and services resource center.

From those priorities, four major themes of investment became apparent: housing development and support operations, addiction and medical assistance for the homeless, co-located homeless services and building capacity in the nonprofit sector.

“We heard from those who are the closest to the work and who can help us identify solutions to end homelessness,” Kunz said.

De Jong said the community stakeholders were respectfully challenged to think through what would have greatest impact on responding to homelessness around the entire island in a way that would make homelessness rare and brief. They also had the opportunity to offer ideas of their own.

“This particular county funding, approximately $9 million per year, allows for some substantial investment in those programs, moving beyond Band-Aid solutions and short-term fixes to something that is much more sustainable and scalable,” De Jong said.

Kunz said the next step is for the Office of Housing and Community Development to put together a request for proposal process and develop criteria to rank and rate applications for projects that fit these priorities. She hopes contracts can begin being rewarded by January or February in 2023.

“We do a lot of work managing homelessness,” she said. “This is what we do, and we have to continue to do this until we can have a system in place that actually helps us to end it.”

De Jong said the investment made by the council to take on homelessness should provide maximum flexibility for the housing office in structuring its requests for proposals and evaluating those proposals submitted. It also should provide the most flexibility for community organizations looking to implement projects.

“This should mean that rubber hits road sooner rather than later in terms of implementation in knowing that implementation is aligned to priorities established by the community,” he said.

County Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung speaks Tuesday during the the meeting of the council’s Governmental Operations, Relations and Economic Development Committee. (Screenshot from video)

Council members simply weren’t sold.

Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said with so few people participating in the focus groups and a one-day in-person meeting, her concern is that it seems like they were stacked with certain organizations that want certain outcomes. She also wonders if the funds are front-loaded into building housing, what does the county do about homelessness in the interim.

Lee Loy voted for Bill 111 because of its goal of getting to zero homelessness on the island. She’s curious to know how the roadmap creates systemic change to get there. Right now, the strategic plan as presented Tuesday is just the nuts and bolts of going vertical and putting plans together.

“This is something that’s going to be realized five years from now and this funding will have sunset and we will not have made gains in the area of reducing homelessness,” she said.

Council Chairwoman Maile David and other members also expressed concern that the plan doesn’t specifically address mental health needs of the homeless. She would like to see in the plan a new mental health facility or proposals to convert an existing building to provide those services. If the roadmap focus is on building homes — and housing those with mental illness is important — it still does not address providing professional care for the mental illness.

“There is a real population that even given housing, they would not be able to survive because of their mental illness,” David said.

Homelessness is a complex issue and council members questioned how four focus groups and a one-day charette process could solve a problem that’s been 30 years in the making. They also wanted additional details of how projects would be prioritized and how funds would be allotted to those projects that are approved.

He doesn’t think the information provided in the roadmap is any more or better than what was available when Bill 111 was passed.

“These priorities are helpful, but this council always wants to know how we are spending the people’s money and is it going to be used to its highest and best potential, and I think that’s what we’re not still clear on,” Councilman Holeka Inaba said.

Chung said the council wants to get the biggest bang for its buck and locking in to five-year contracts for housing construction or other projects might take away from prospects of leveraging the funds to get additional resources from the federal or state government.

If the roadmap isn’t producing results and people aren’t getting the services they need, why continue throwing money at not fixing the problem, asked committee chairwoman Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

Chung said the goal of the program created by Bill 111 is not to get the money out to the community as Kunz said at one point during the meeting. It is to end homelessness.

He said: “The only thing we can do is trust that you guys are going to take us in the right direction.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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