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May 6, 2016
HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers set aside more money to tackle the highest rate of homelessness in the nation — a crisis that has left families with children living on sidewalks alongside the beaches of paradise.
The Legislature allocated $12 million in new funding during the session ending Thursday. It will go toward social services and clearing out homeless encampments.
The amount surpassed Gov. David Ige's funding request and added to the more than $15 million the state already spends annually to address the problem.
“This is the largest infusion of operating money for homelessness in at least the last 10 years, at a minimum, if not longer,” said Wes Machida, the state's finance director.
Hawaii has an estimated 7,620 homeless people statewide, with the number of unsheltered families growing nearly 50 percent from 2014 to 2015.
“Living like this, it's not easy,” said Janet Lorenza, 46, who teaches English at an elementary school in Waikiki and lives in a tent in Honolulu. “Living in Hawaii, it's not fun. Beautiful land, but expensive land.”
The crisis has received increasing attention over the past year, after Honolulu banned sitting and lying down in the tourism mecca of Waikiki and families with toddlers sought shelter in a homeless encampment not far from the capitol.
“We understand there's no silver bullet, and we are looking at multiple approaches to tackling a very difficult issue that is facing our community,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda.
Ige said he plans to spend the $12 million and other funding from the Legislature on three areas: developing permanent affordable housing, providing health and human services for the homeless and ensuring that public areas remain public through enforcement.
Ige's spending plan included at least $2 million for removing homeless encampments along highways and elsewhere.
A bill to expand a ban on sitting and lying down on state land that was modeled after Honolulu's sit-lie ban died during the legislative session, along with Ige's bill to criminalize trespassing on state lands. Ige said he would try again next year with the criminal trespass bill, which critics feared would criminalize homelessness.
“We need the capacity to challenge people who are in areas that they shouldn't be,” Ige said. “The primary difference is that we are also focused on assuring that as we do this enforcement we have space in a shelter for everyone who is there.”
Over the summer, Ige created a new team to address homelessness. They developed a deeper understanding of the causes of the problem, Tokuda said.
Outreach teams at encampments helped move 237 people off the streets and into shelters or permanent housing since August, said Scott Morishige, Ige's homelessness coordinator.
The Legislature also established a goal of developing 22,500 new affordable housing units over the next 10 years, and set aside more than $100 million in general funds and bonds for affordable housing that includes public housing repairs, rentals and homes for purchase.
Advocates for the homeless were pleased with the influx of money but wanted to know more about how the governor would spend it.
“We're the worst in the nation with per capita homelessness, and our rents are about the highest in the nation, so it's going to take some years to bring those statistics down,” said Rev. Bob Nakata of Faith Action for Community Equity.