Senate Bill 221 – Coordinated Efforts on Homelessness

By: J. S.

Homelessness affects roughly 15,000 people in Hawaii on a given day, including both individuals and families. The issue affects communities and individuals throughout our state, with an estimated 3,101 school age keiki in different states of homelessness. A new bill is looking for ways to address these concerns in specific parts of the islands, bringing together the efforts of different stakeholders to find solutions.

Senate Bill 221 aims to coordinate state, county and private efforts to assist with communities impacted by homelessness, with specific remedies for homeless populations within each unique setting. Introduced in January 2021 by Senator Kurt Fevella of Ewa Beach along with 11 other senators, the bill was most recently deferred by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and will be rescheduled for another hearing.

There are different views of the effectiveness of this bill. Some have the concern that it may duplicate efforts underway between state government and nonprofits. Scott Morishige is the current Governor’s Coordinator on Homelessness. In his testimony regarding the bill, the coordinator stated his appreciation of the intent of the bill, and also listed current collaborative efforts between his office, different counties, and various nonprofits. Much focus on combating homelessness has been placed on the remedy of building affordable housing. The Coordinator’s office contracts with Hawaii counties to administer a range of homeless shelter and housing programs that have seen positive results.

Other testimony from Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center asked for legislators to amend the bill to include Mr. Morishige’s current accomplishments and create space for current efforts to continue should the bill be passed.

Support for the bill came in from Hawaii Youth Services Network, which testified that “homelessness does not have one size fits all solutions” and that the organization will participate with the efforts if the bill passes.

The bill permits for a wide focus on the issue of homelessness, tailoring possible solutions to the different counties. One hope is that the bill will help to spread funds between the different islands as all are impacted in different ways by homelessness. Supporters of the bill feel that more collaboration should be encouraged between the state and private sector.

There is no denial that the state of homelessness in Hawaii is a large concern. Federal data indicated the issue affected roughly 3,101 school age children in addition to adults, creating special concerns. These might include children on the streets, in shelters or in short term housing. When we think of homelessness, it is easy to imagine it is the person on the side of the street in downtown Honolulu. In reality those without adequate shelter are often hidden from plain sight and can include whole families.

The Homeless Point in Time Report records the number of individuals living on the street on a given day in January each year. 2020’s report showed 6,458 homeless in Oahu, with roughly 57% of those unsheltered. 1 in 4 homeless adults surveyed reported at least one mental health problem, and 1 in 10 were veterans.

Lieutenant Governor Josh Greene’s recent report on homelessness states that there are currently 15,000 homeless individuals in the state. Sadly, the average lifespan for individuals on the street is 53 years old, 30 years less than the average lifespan of the general public. Chronically homeless individuals make up most of the highest Medicaid users in the state. The report states there is almost a total overlap between those who are chronically homeless and those who are the top users of Medicaid benefits. 13,000 people spend 1.2 billion in Medicaid each year, with the total Medicaid budget for the state being 2 billion dollars. There are definite incentives for the state of Hawaii to focus on additional approaches to assisting this demographic in the specific ways each community needs.