County fine-tunes homeless assessment center plan

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii Island stakeholders have met several times in recent weeks to determine how best to access and use as much of the state’s historic $50 million homelessness allocation as possible.

Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said leaders of the county’s Community Alliance Partners have a plan to pioneer a new concept for homeless assessment centers that might allow Hawaii Island to score an $800,000 state fund to create such a center.

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The allocation, approved in the 2018 legislative session, does not specify an island or location to which the funding must be sent, so it’ll come down to which county offers the best pitch.

“We will propose to convert existing facilities into these family assessment centers,” Takemoto explained. “So, the $800,000 wouldn’t be used for any kind of capital improvements because they’re existing facilities. We can use all those funds for (operations).”

The concept would appropriate 23 units at the Ulu Wini housing complex in Kona and repurpose them. Ten of the units would be converted to emergency shelters for families.

Larger families would occupy a unit to themselves, as each fits six people. However, in some units, two smaller families would split the space, sharing a few components such as the bathroom, to maximize the numbers housed.

The other 13 would be turned into transitional units to tap into funding sources separate from Section 8, a program used to fund those living at Ulu Wini. Takemoto said it would then free up those Section 8 vouchers for other needs.

The community center at Ulu Wini would be set aside as an assessment area. It would be available for 24/7 assessments of all homeless individuals, whether part of a family or not. However, the living spaces at Ulu Wini would remain family-focused.

Hawaii County’s procurement of the assessment center grant also would open the door for a discussion about potentially introducing a “sit-lie” bill across the island, which would help police address community and business concerns of homeless loitering in public spaces and on sidewalks in front of commercial areas.

Takemoto said the topic of implementing a law similar to one that exists on Oahu has been broached at the highest levels of county government, but added officials wouldn’t entertain the notion without an assurance the assessment center funds were on their way.

“Implementing a law like that … just moves the problem around,” Takemoto said. “It does not work until we have a place to send the homeless to, which is the assessment center we are working on.”

If awarded the grant, the county would use $400,000 to develop the concept at Ulu Wini and dedicate the other half of the money to a similar proposal in East Hawaii.

Village 9, however, a parcel of land off Kealakehe Parkway for which the county is planning a homeless site, isn’t likely to be ready for at least a year. It appears now Hawaii County will construct Village 9 with monies from a pool of $30 million in state funding appropriated this session for the ohana zones concept islandwide.

Gov. David Ige has not committed to specific allocations for each island, and Takemoto said the piece of the pie Hawaii County receives will depend on need and details of its proposal(s) for ohana zones.

Whatever the county is awarded, more is likely to be spent in West Hawaii.

“On the east side, we’d be looking to any kind of shelter area that we set up for the lava evacuees,” Takemoto explained. “We’ll carefully consider if (those) can be converted to an ohana zone for the homeless after the evacuation needs expire.”

Homelessness is down across Hawaii Island, according to the most recent Point-In-Time Count study. In 2016, the count registered 1,394 homeless individuals countywide, an all-time high. The following year, that number dropped to 953.

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When the count was conducted in January, volunteers came up with a total of 869 homeless people on the island.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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