Saturday | January 20, 2018
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County sealing deal on site for homeless in Kona

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County is closing in on a deal with the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation that would secure 15-20 acres of state-owned land to serve as a permanent relocation site for Kona’s homeless overflow, which worsened after nearly 70 people were told to vacate Old Kona Airport Park early last month.

And the price? Just $1 a year.

Of course, several other costs will be associated with the project. But county officials said the deal with HHFDC — a division of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — is the first giant step down a path toward housing solutions of various types for hundreds of homeless people who otherwise would be relegated to the streets.

The first pit stop should come in about three months in the form of a right-of-entry permit, which will allow the county to construct a temporary encampment on 5 acres of the parcel.

This would allow the county to move the 30 or so homeless people residing at Hale Kikaha, an open-air homeless camp in the heart of the Old Kona Industrial Area, a few miles mauka. The exodus would relieve some pressure on the business community in downtown Kona, which absorbed a swell of homeless vacating Old A in August.

“Right now, we’re overcrowded with people who are kind of just exiting homelessness in an area where there is business,” said Linda Vandervoort, the primary manager and director of social outreach at Hale Kikaha. “That’s really, really hard.”

Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said the right-of-entry permit could be secured within the next two months, after which about a month would be required to render the site camp-ready.

He expects the deal to clear, as HHFDC recommended its approval. The agreement would allow the county to essentially pluck the homeless encampment out of downtown Kona and relocate it to a plot called “Village 9” near the West Hawaii Civic Center off the corner of Kealakehe Parkway and Ane Keohokalole Highway.

The area was once made available to Kona Community Hospital for a potential relocation of its facilities, but Takemoto said that fell through.

More recently, the land was considered as a site for Kona’s new judiciary complex. But Takemoto said issues involving a portion of it that serves as a critical habitat for an endangered species of plant brought those plans to a halt.

There are roughly 35 acres of developable land at Village 9 that won’t encounter the same roadblocks as the judiciary complex. The county will take 15-20 acres, while HHFDC plans to build out affordable rental housing on the balance of the parcel.

The overall cost is yet to be determined as the site plan for the permanent housing strategy hasn’t been finalized, but Takemoto said the burden would be spread out among various sources.

“It cannot be entirely from county coffers, and it’s not expected to be CIP money,” he said. “We would need to look to the community, to foundations, to philanthropists to fund this one.”

The county will assume most of the startup costs, including those associated with procuring the right-of-entry permit and conducting the environmental assessment. Takemoto added the county might also foot the bill for preparing the land, which will include grading and acquiring the necessary permits.

All of that work should happen soon in preparation for the relocation of not only the campers at Hale Kikaha, but also as many as 70 more homeless individuals.

The county budget currently funds security, trash removal, portable facility rentals and other services at Hale Kikaha, which Assistant Housing Administrator Lance Niimi said run in the neighborhood of $23,000 monthly. Those costs likely would increase along with the number of homeless using the site at Village 9.

While structures are the hot topic of conversation now, Niimi said constructing the units isn’t actually the county’s primary concern. He noted Kim has been in contact with several “prominent” residents of Hawaii Island who are interested in lending a hand financially, and Takemoto said multiple developers have already reached out with advice.

The real concern, Niimi explained, is not so easily addressed.

“The most daunting challenge is the management of the homeless when you put them all together like that,” he said.

Vandervoort said she’s been forced to expel six campers from Hale Kikaha in its one month of existence, typically for drug and alcohol use.

Village 9, like Hale Kikaha, will follow a federal Housing First model, which has low barriers to entry and doesn’t require tenants be sober for admission. However, rules exist to keep illicit substances off the property, and Vandervoort has found drug paraphernalia and empty bottles of booze at Hale Kikaha on multiple occasions.

She has asked others to leave for behavioral issues manifesting as unacceptable, aggressive confrontations.

“Some have had to go because they can’t stabilize enough to live in an environment like this,” she said.

Vandervoort believes it would take her and at least two others to manage a maximum capacity of 100 at the temporary encampment at Village 9. On-site social services would also be built into any version of the permanent housing development, meaning eventually the housing project would require more trained providers, which Niimi said will drive up costs.

Furthermore, the behavioral issues at Hale Kikaha bring up an interesting question, one that the previous administration under former Mayor Billy Kenoi dealt with when deciding where to place the micro housing units.

If we build it, will they come? The answer at Hale Kikaha was yes. Overwhelmingly.

“We did not anticipate these kind of numbers as far as people wanting this kind of encampment site,” Kim said of Hale Kikaha.

But when the county transitions to Village 9, located several miles away from downtown Kona where many homeless spend their days, the concern about whether or not the homeless would utilize the new camp to its capacity is a valid one.

Vandervoort was blunt in her assessment on what percentage of homeless she believed would be interested in such a situation.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say a majority,” she said.

However, she was speaking of the majority of Kona’s homeless in general, not the majority of those who sought shelter at Hale Kikaha.

She said the older population and the more vulnerable populations would be much more likely to agree to move a few miles away from pretty much everything. Those demographics may represent a large number of the homeless typically found congregating in downtown Kona.

Vandervoort said creating an aesthetically pleasing community would go along way toward garnering homeless interest in Village 9. Still, the most important component would be transportation.

“It would make sense, if not be totally essential, to have public transportation,” said Vandervoort.

She added a “loop that operates three times daily is a must.”

While several obstacles would remain to effectively ending homelessness in Kona, any version of Village 9 would certainly take a bite out of the problem.

Vandervoort said aside from the six individuals she’s had to kick out of Hale Kikaha, another four have parted on different terms.

“Working with HOPE Services, we have moved four people from the camp to the emergency shelter,” she said. “That’s the next step up. These are people who wouldn’t have gone into the shelter to begin with. They stabilize, realize that working with service providers is not that bad, and they see that this is a way they can live more comfortably and better their situation.”

That’s exactly the type of result Kim is hoping Village 9 will produce, but on a much larger scale.

“We’ve learned a lot in regards to how to set it up and how to adjust to a more permanent site,” he said. “That’s what we need.”

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