The county is looking to establish a Hilo counterpart to the proposed Village 9 homeless site in Kailua-Kona, though plans are still “very preliminary.”
Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, told the Tribune-Herald last week that the county is in the initial stages of acquiring access to two adjoining land parcels at the old airport in Hilo — located about 850 feet from Access Road — where it is looking to possibly erect tents and domes.
The land parcels, which total about 20 acres combined, are owned by the state and Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Takemoto said. He said the land is largely “unencumbered vacant land” where many homeless already camp. He said the county would need about 5 acres.
“It would start off as a temporary right of entry in order for us to expeditiously get access to the property and to give us time to figure out if we want to be there for the long term and if it’s appropriate,” Takemoto said. “We’d keep a buffer to the highway and see what we could do to clean up that area and make it a more sanitary place.”
The overall cost would be contingent on what’s established: Fire-resistant tent material would be least expensive with pop-up tents, domes and cottage or tiny home-type structures being more costly, Takemoto said.
The initial idea “would be maybe (to construct) just a temporary facility like tents or domes,” Takemoto said. “A permanent facility, if we really need one, would probably be somewhere else. But the idea hopefully is that we’d be able to absorb the homeless and then (help them) get into other existing permanent shelters or permanent housing that exists elsewhere.”
The county is hoping to secure capital improvement funds at the Legislature to pay for the project, Takemoto said. Otherwise it plans to stretch a $25,000 allocation promised by the state, also planned to be used to establish Village 9 in Kona.
He said they hope to have the Hilo project started within about three months. Within a year, he said the county would like to have “a clear idea of where a permanent (Hilo) site would be.”
“If (the old airport site) becomes a permanent site we’d start moving on that,” he said. “But if it’s not, we’d start closing down that site and direct (our) attention to a permanent site.”
A Hilo church also is working to start a homeless site in Pahoa. Hilo Missionary Church wants to establish a multiuse facility site on a 13-acre parcel of church-owned land on Post Office Road.
Pastor Daniel Ikawa told the Tribune-Herald the facility would be called Pu‘uhonua O Pahoa Marae and might include temporary and permanent housing, a space for community use, land for growing food, among other things. He said it would follow the “marae” concept, or a traditional Polynesian gathering place for a village and tribe. Residents would be required to work, Ikawa said, for example “kupuna would help children with homework.”
Ikawa said the facility would target “the most vulnerable first,” such as the elderly and women and children.
The church is hoping to secure grant funding and use volunteer labor to help complete the project. It’s also collaborating with other churches in the area. Ikawa said the proposal is still in the planning stages but he’d “personally love to break ground early next year.”
“We’ve been working on this for several years,” he said. “We see the problem but it takes awhile to get these things off the ground. … This is not for profit, we’re spending time and money on it but the church believes we should be helping those who are less fortunate.”
The county has been pressed recently to find ways to appease the homeless population in West Hawaii: This week, it shuttered its Camp Kikaha, a temporary encampment in the Old Kona Industrial Area.
Kim also called Gov. David Ige last week to sign an emergency proclamation to waive an environmental assessment requirement to ultimately help fast-track plans for the Village 9 site. Takemoto said if Ige signs a proclamation it could also help expedite plans in Hilo.
Data from the 2017 Homeless Point in Time Count shows just more than one-fourth of the island’s homeless population resides in Hilo, the largest percentage on the island.
Pahoa accounted for 13 percent.
In all, there were 953 Hawaii Island homeless individuals counted in 2017. Officials are expecting about the same number this year though final tallies aren’t available yet.
East Hawaii business owners said this week they’d welcome a place to refer homeless, who often can be seen sleeping and loitering outside downtown storefronts.
“Some type of place would be better than nothing which is what we have now,” said Sarah Williams, who manages the downtown Pahoa Village Museum, adding she thinks a “well-maintained, community-based operation (in Pahoa) would definitely get a lot of use by the population in crisis.”
“For me, there’s nowhere currently to send them,” Williams continued. “It intimidates people coming to town and it makes them uncomfortable to walk downtown on the sidewalk. And for me, as someone who is in town every day and I know a lot of them, it’s really hard for me to tell them to go somewhere because I don’t know where to tell them to go.”
“I do wish there was a facility to be able to house them or to help them,” added Darlene Ide, owner of a jewelry and gift store located on the Hilo Bayfront. “There are a few places (in Hilo) they can go but a lot of them just hang here and it does bother people. It’s not great for business.”
Takemoto said once more homeless facilities are in place enforcement could become stricter: Outreach workers would “go out and be persuasive in getting them to shelter and if (they don’t want it), not give them much choice.”
“They’d have to stop trespassing and camping illegally in public places,” Takemoto said. “What’s happening now is, we’ve had to kind of move back on enforcement of rules and laws. But once we’re able to have a place where they can go, we need stricter enforcement of those rules and laws.”
Email Kirsten Johnson at email@example.com.