Men’s shelter in old Hilo hospital accepts its first residents

  • Courtesy photo The old Hilo Memorial Hospital has been transformed into an emergency shelter, Keolahou, that will serve single men. The shelter had a soft opening Monday and will formally open next month.

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Hawaii County is using part of the old Hilo Hospital as an Ohana Zones shelter for homeless men.

The old Hilo Memorial Hospital has a new purpose: helping homeless men.

On Monday, Keolahou, an emergency shelter established there, accepted its first seven residents.

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A formal opening and blessing is set for Friday, Nov. 8.

Hawaii County was previously awarded $2.5 million in Ohana Zone funding from the state for Keolahou.

In 2018, state legislators appropriated $30 million to establish at least three Ohana Zone sites on Oahu, and one each on Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai.

The law requires that Ohana Zones be placed on state and county land and that those spaces provide services to assist homeless individuals and families to access permanent housing.

Efforts to convert the former and aging hospital, located near Rainbow Falls, into a shelter began earlier this year.

A collaboration between the state, county, Hope Services Hawaii and other community partners, the first phase of Keolahou will provide up to 25 emergency shelter beds for single men, said Hope Services CEO Brandee Menino.

By the end of the year, plans call for up to 50 emergency shelter beds, she said. By the end of November, a daytime assessment and resource center will be opened at the facility.

According to Menino, the assessment center will have washers and dryers, restrooms and showers, a kitchen and food supplies and will serve as a place individuals can “get connected during the day.”

“We’re very excited that the Keolahou (shelter) has become a reality and that we’re in a position to increase the number of emergency shelter beds focusing on our single men in our community,” said Sharon Hirota, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim. “We’re also grateful for the community partners that have come forward to offer services to those who are participating in the program.”

While Hope Services is the managing provider, other community partners will be on site offering services.

Among those partners, Legal Aid will provide legal services, The Arc of Hilo will provide vocational training and job placement services, Bay Clinic will have a mobile health unit on site and Hawaiian Community Assets will offer financial education.

Organizers wanted to create a space where “access isn’t an issue to get services,” Menino said.

Interested individuals have been waiting for the new shelter “because we don’t have enough shelter beds in our community,” she said.

There are just 16 shelter beds for single men and on any given night in Hilo, but there are about 150 individuals experiencing homelessness, according to a homeless count conducted in January, Menino said.

“Each person experiencing homelessness has specific needs, and this center is providing individual assistance to those who seek help,” said Gov. David Ige in a news release from the Office of the Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness. “Partnerships like this one allow us to improve the health and well-being of our community’s most vulnerable members.”

In the news release, Kim also expressed his gratitude to the state, adding that the program will hopefully be duplicated in Kailua-Kona, pending environmental review.

“Both the Hilo and proposed Kona facilities would provide an assessment center to bring the homeless off the streets, an emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing and support services,” he said. “We are truly grateful to all of our partners.”

Hirota said much of the work done within the old hospital has been cosmetic, including new paint and flooring. Spaces also were created for private sleeping areas, among other improvements.

According to Menino, the goal is to move people out of the shelter and into housing within 90 days, but residents can stay until that happens.

“It takes a community to end homelessness,” Menino said. An emergency shelter is just part of an individual’s journey, “it’s not their final destination.”

According to the news release, other projects addressing homelessness also are in the pipeline for Hawaii County.

An assessment center at the Na Kahua Hale o Ulu Wini housing complex is expected to open by the end of the year, and the Village 9 affordable housing project and 20 units of permanent supportive housing at Keolahou are scheduled to welcome residents in spring 2020.

According to Menino, upstairs space at the old hospital, currently occupied by the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, will be transitioned to single-room occupancy units after the pharmacy school relocates to its new facility.

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These units will be single-room rentals and will share showers and kitchen space, she said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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