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County Council and housing office divided on how to use new funding for homeless problem

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Daisha Joao, 32, is currently unsheltered on Hilo Bayfront and is having an issue finding housing because of her multiple dogs. Photo by Megan Moseley.

When it comes to tackling homelessness on the Big Island, there is a divide between the Hawai‘i County Council and the Hawai‘i County Office of Housing and Community Development about how to spend an estimated $9 million through the end of next June to address the islandwide problem.

The county’s housing office says the way to deal with the problem is housing, housing, housing. The County Council says housing is only part of the solution.

The divide was obvious during Tuesday’s meeting of the Council’s Government Operations, Relations and Economic Development Committee. Members continued a discussion about the newly created Strategic Roadmap for Housing and Homelessness.

When county Housing Administrator Susan Kunz presented the roadmap to the same committee in September, it was not received well.

Council members thought a roadmap should include items such as cost estimates for projects and proposals, specific plans to address homelessness and details about how the county will spend the $9 million approved in March by the Council in Bill 111.

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Instead, what the Council got was a list of priorities and four major investment themes — what one Council member called a primer and Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung said was a conceptual plan, not a roadmap.

Bill 111 was introduced by Chung and allocates no less than 75% of the property tax revenue collected each year from Tier 2 residential properties (second luxury homes) with a value of more than $2 million during the new five-year program, which runs through June 30, 2027.

The funds will be used for County-sponsored programs to address homelessness — and housing, which was at the center of Tuesday’s discussion.

Two shopping carts filled with the belongings of unsheltered individuals are parked Wednesday on Wailuku Drive in Hilo. Photo by Megan Moseley.

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 people were counted as homeless on the Big Island this year. It said 283 were sheltered and 554 were unsheltered.

Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder again reminded Kunz and the Council that the original intent of Bill 111 was taking on homelessness. It was amended to include housing before the Council approved its first reading in February. Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder has expressed concern several times that the housing component could overshadow Chung’s real goal with the bill.

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“Our ultimate goal is to end homelessness within five years, right?” Chung said during discussion about the measure at the Council’s Feb. 23 regular meeting. “That’s implicit in this.”

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said Tuesday that, sure, housing and homelessness are related, but he thinks the community is being driven into a frenzy by the homeless and people are looking to the council and county government to fix the problem.

Chung said Kunz and her housing office are coming at the program created by Bill 111 from the housing perspective, which is what they are supposed to do: “You guys are the housing agency. So you guys are vested with the responsibility of doing certain things regarding housing.”

It’s drilled into them that housing should come first, so there’s thought that if inroads are made in the housing supply it will have a direct impact on homelessness.

But housing and homelessness are not necessarily the same issue. Other council members said Tuesday that some housing issues have nothing to do with homelessness, including the need for more affordable housing to keep young people from being forced to move off-island to someplace cheaper — and the overall need for additional affordable housing on the Big Island.

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Chung, using downtown Hilo as an example, said visually, the homelessness issue is not a good look for the island’s communities.

“We have to do whatever we can to get that homeless population off the streets,” he said.

Chung said the annual allocation to the new program approved in Bill 111 likely won’t be enough to fix homelessness, but if it’s all devoted to housing, that flies in the face of what he intended. He’s troubled by the direction being taken with the program, but wasn’t faulting the housing office because it is moving forward in its own frame of reference.

“I think this needs to have a broader discussion and it has to be at the highest level,” Chung said. “I think the mayor needs to come here, in my opinion.”

Kunz asked if the goal is to get people off the streets, where would they go? In her mind, the only way to address homelessness is through housing. If the Council wants the program to only address services and management of homelessness, that won’t lead to it being rare and nonrecurring.

“We are so totally not on the same page,” Kunz said.

Chung is concerned that it seems like the conversation and the program are focused only on housing.

“You guys are asking us to take leaps of faith that by addressing housing we will impact homelessness,” he said. “True, but it depends on which segment of the housing component you guys are looking at. If you’re looking at families, maybe that might not impact the people down in downtown Hilo or Kailua-Kona. It really depends on what you guys focus on.”

Councilman Holeka Inaba said the two sides not being on the same page has persisted for awhile. The final version of the program needs to include management of homelessness and housing. The road map as presented didn’t do it. He hopes when requests for proposals for the new program go out later this month, the Council can get a better idea of what the program will look like.

“I think when it comes to this initial pot of money, this $9 million that Councilman Chung put forward with that one bill, gotta get back to the heart of the issue which is gotta clean up downtown Hilo, Hale Halawai, downtown Pāhoa,” Kierkiewicz said. “These folks need support — mental health services, substance abuse, all that kine stuff. … Let’s put the (requests for proposals) out there, let’s let folks know these are the issues we’re trying to solve for, let’s see what our providers can do. Let’s understand what the ecosystem looks like and where we need to fill in the gap.”

An unsheltered man walks along Wailuku Drive on Wednesday in Hilo. Photo by Megan Moseley.

She added that seeing what is proposed in the requests for proposals will help determine where the program is lacking. The sooner that’s figured out, the sooner everybody knows what’s needed to build up the program.

Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said: “Help me provide the public the assurances that that funding is going to make an impact on homelessness as it was adopted.”

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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