Hiccups shake confidence in Housing First

(Via Star Advertiser)

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Housing First initiative to provide shelter and related social services to the chronically homeless has achieved mixed results nine months after the Hono­lulu City Council dedicated $35 million toward the effort.

A $2.18 million contract issued to the nonprofit Institute for Human Services in November is supposed to find long-term housing for 115 individuals and families who are chronically homeless. To date, 40 families totaling 46 people have been housed and are receiving related services, and both city and IHS officials say the effort is on track to house and provide services for up to 115 households in its first 12 months.

But a planned temporary homeless transition center for up to 100 families at Sand Island has hit numerous snags, leaving city officials still trying to decide if they should proceed with or scrap the much-maligned project. The city needs to spend funds by June 30 or the appropriation will lapse.

Meanwhile, the administration has yet to come up with definitive plans for much of $32 million in bond money aimed at acquiring, developing or renovating properties to provide emergency, transitional or permanent shelters.

The Council last June signed off on $3 million in Housing First funds from this year’s $2 billion operating budget. IHS won a contract to provide long-term shelter, a year or more, and related “wraparound” services for 115 individuals and families that fall into the category of chronically homeless.

Kimo Carvalho, IHS community relations director, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Friday that the organization is on pace to provide permanent shelter via rental housing subsidies to 115 households by the end of October, the end of the first year of its two-year contract.

Carvalho emphasized that besides putting people in Housing First units, which are scattered across the island, IHS has been able to provide “stable housing” opportunities from other program funds for more than 1,000 other people since July.

As for the Sand Island project, the state Department of Health told the city March 12 that a soil study of the vacant, 2-acre site found only an inconsequential amount of contaminants, essentially giving the city clearance to proceed.

But Georgette Deemer, the city’s deputy managing director, said despite receiving a clean bill of health for the site, the administration wants to re-evaluate what, if anything, to do there.

About $750,000 in Housing First funding that had been set aside for the Sand Island project must be committed by June 30 or lapse, Deemer said, requiring city officials to move quickly.

The Sand Island plan was first conceived by the administration early last September after Council members urged the administration to come up with an immediate, temporary place for homeless before they passed hotly debated bills prohibiting people from lying or sitting on city sidewalks.

City officials said then that they expected the project to be up and running within three months. But the proposal drew strong objections from some homeless advocates who argued that the area is remote and desolate.

The revelation that the site is within a larger property that may have once been a waste disposal site gave opponents added ammunition.

Late last September, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the property, gave the city a three-year lease with the under­standing that any soil concerns would be addressed. The approval came over the objections of those who argued a more formal environmental assessment should have been done first.

Fenix Grange, supervisor for the state Department of Health’s Site Discovery, Assessment and Remediation Section, said a soil analysis of the 2 acres where people are supposed to camp showed levels of petroleum products, lead, arsenic, dioxins and semi-volatile organic compounds far below the maximum acceptable amounts.

Nonetheless, Deemer said, “Now that Housing First has taken hold and seems to be gaining momentum, should we be re-evaluating what Sand Island should be used for?”

The administration wants to ask that question of the community and the area’s elected officials in the next few months, she said.

Area Councilman Joey Manahan said one idea the administration is considering is placing modular or container housing at Sand Island. Manahan said he likes that idea much better than the original idea of allowing the homeless to sleep in tents.

The administration took some criticism from Council Budget Committee members earlier this month on the lack of progress in using the $32 million in capital improvement funds they had set aside for projects to house the homeless.

City officials responded by saying they initially did not have the expertise to deal with the funding and needed to establish a new Office of Strategic Development, created in December, to devise ways to use the money. The office, besides developing projects for the Housing First program, is also tasked with Caldwell’s affordable-housing initiative aimed at increasing the number of units on Oahu devoted to those making 50 percent of the median income or less.

Some of the money has already been spoken for, including $6.2 million for a Family Justice Center project in Makiki and $1.65 million to rehabilitate 26 existing units at the city’s Winston Hale in Chinatown.

Beyond that, according to Sandra Pfund, strategic development officer, the city is looking at the possibility of establishing shipping container and modular housing units in Waianae, acquiring smaller walk-up apartments and possibly seeking land acquisition in the target areas of Waikiki, Chinatown-downtown and the Waianae Coast.

Pfund noted that general obligation bond funding requires the city to either own or control a property set aside for housing.

“The mayor’s position has always been that a scattered-site approach to affordable and low-income housing is a good one,” Pfund said. “But we couldn’t take this money … and give it to a private developer and say, ‘OK, go use it for your project.'”

Council members have mixed feelings on what the administration has been able to accomplish in the first nine months with Housing First.

Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said she was hoping the city would be further along in providing units for the homeless.

The administration should not have waited for Pfund’s office to be formed, she said. “They should have been planning this from before that.”

Kobayashi said she wants to see clearer plans showing the city is working with the state and private interests to develop housing for the homeless, noting that those sectors have expertise in areas the city may not have.

Council Public Safety Committee Chairman Ron Menor said he’s satisfied the administration has done what it can in implementing the voucher program with IHS. It is also “going in the right direction” identifying locations where the capital improvement money can be used.

Menor said he understands the logistical challenges the administration faced in getting its Housing First programs going.

He emphasized that the money the Council set aside last year will “only be able to make a dent in addressing our affordable housing and homeless problems. Clearly more has to be done.”

Two homeless advocates with whom the Star-Advertiser spoke said they’re generally happy with how the Housing First program has progressed.

Scott Morishige, executive director of the group PHOCUSED (Protecting Hawaii’s Ohana Children, Under-Served Elderly and Disabled), said the city’s program has been more effecting than similar efforts at Housing First by the state.

“They’re placing more people per month,” he said.

A strength of the IHS contract is that it is a partnership with other homeless and social service agencies across the island.

“Each organization has a different relationship with individuals in the community,” he said. As a result, he said, “the program has been effective in helping to move some of these individuals off the street.”

Jenny Lee, staff attorney with the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said she likes the focus on the chronically homeless, among those who face the biggest challenges in securing permanent housing.

The administration is proposing to increase the amount set aside for homeless rental subsidies and other general fund uses to $5.5 million, up from $3 million, in order to serve another 100 people, and that’s a good thing, Lee said.

“You’ll see the cost savings aggregate when you’re the most vulnerable,” she said, in the form of lower incarceration and health care needs. “And then, of course, it’s just the humane, right thing to do.”

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