Ambitious new Big Island plan calls for homeless safe zones, affordable housing

KONA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - While the rest of the state is debating whether homeless safe zones are a good idea, the Big Island is moving forward with ambitious plans for several more of them.

County officials are poised to create new temporary encampments in Hilo, Pahoa and Kau.

Meanwhile, Hawaii County officials hope to transform the state's first homeless safe zone, situated in Kona, into a new project aimed at providing everything from a place to pitch a tent to permanent housing.

Camp Kikaha opened in August, and the county is preparing to close it soon, transitioning the last of its residents into higher level shelters.

Now county leaders are focused on a new project being called Village 9, which officials plan to build just off Kealakehe Parkway near the West Hawaii Civic Center.

Right now, the state and Hawaii County are working on a deal to divide the property into three parcels.

Mayor Harry Kim's executive assistant, Roy Takemoto, said the county wants to first begin work on a five-acre plot just off the parkway.

"In that five acres it would be kind of like an encampment, whether it be canopy tents or domes depending on funding," Takemoto said. "We want to go in as quickly as possible to re-establish camp Kikaha."

Hawaii Island homeless coordinator Lance Niimi said the camp is part of the mayor's commitment not to conduct homeless sweeps without giving people a place to go.

"For those who could not be housed because of space availability, we would create sites so that we could have them housed," he said.

The state's 2017 point-in-time count put the number of homeless on the Big Island at about 953, more than 70 percent of whom were living on the streets.

Camp Kikaha officials note that while the initial costs of the safe zone were high due to security needs, spending leveled off.

Since its inception, Hawaii County has spent about $42,000 to keep the camp open. In addition to security, other costs include portable toilet rentals, canopy tents and other supplies.

In addition to the new safe zone on the property, officials said about 15 acres (pictured in green) would go to the state for a minimum of 50 affordable rental units while another 15 acres would be leased to the county.

"We will try to design it to be as flexible as possible," Takemoto said, adding that he wants to create an on-site assessment center that connects homeless people with the resources they need.

That includes job and housing opportunities as well as substance abuse and mental health resources.

There is also a plan to build several on-site pocket neighborhoods.

"There will be 10 to 12 smaller units — igloo size or tiny homes — around a common open space," Takemoto said.

The state gave the county $184,000 to do an environmental assessment of the area and come up with a master plan. Construction is slated to begin by the end of the year, but not before the community gets a say on the project.

"We want to get the community's input. We want to involve them in the planning and the final determination of whether this is the appropriate site," Takemoto said.

As for who's paying for the project, Hawaii County officials say they're hoping to secure $5 million from the state Legislature. But if that doesn't come through the county would have to start fundraising in the community.

37 people left Camp Kikaha since it opened. Here's why:
4 couldn't be stabilized Workers said they left because they suffered from behavioral health or substance abuse issues.
2 were evicted Both were evicted for drug use.
7 were asked to leave Officials said these tenants left because of serious violations.
3 were arrested One had a prior warrant, while 2 were arrested following criminal activity.
5 left voluntarily The reasons for their departures aren't known.
12 were placed in emergency housing Of these, two are in permanent housing and two others are awaiting placement.
1 went to treatment Officials said the camper was able to find a residential treatment program.
3 returned to family It's unclear whether these individuals remain housed.

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