HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Police Department’s large tent city at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park is a highly-visible symbol of the twin battles being raged against COVID-19 and homelessness.
But the rising cost of the emergency shelter is raising red flags amongst members of the Honolulu City Council and within the community.
Over the past few months, HPD has spent millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid on things like tents and generators, so homeless people who wanted to get off the streets during the pandemic could quarantine at the facility.
But most nights, a campsite that’s made up of dozens of tents, both large and small, is not even half full.
City officials say HPD’s Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage facility ― or POST ― has space for up to 150 people. But records show that since its launch in April, the facility has averaged just 46 people per night.
Hawaii News Now has spent the past week asking to get a closer look at HPD’s new purchases, but were told more time was needed to accommodate our request.
Records show that over the past few months, the police department has used more than $2 million in federal CARES Act funds to expand the camp, including expenditures on things like tents, sleeping bags, portable showers, generators, vehicles, and 24-hour security ― along with more than a dozen contract positions.
That’s on top of another $6 million the city gave HPD when the program first debuted under a different name last December. Altogether, more than $8 million has been funneled into the campsite.
Meanwhile, data obtained from the facility’s daily census shows that between Apr. 8 and Nov. 21, the facility was less than half full 90 percent of the time.
“If we’re spending money on tents and sleeping bags nobody’s using, that’s a problem,” said City Councilman Tommy Waters.
Waters, who is expected to be voted in as the next chair of the City Council, says the money could have gone towards the purchase of permanent housing.
“Using the emergency proclamation, you could suspend the rules, get out there and start building places for people to live,” said Waters.
Nani Medeiros heads up HomeAid Hawaii. The non-profit uses its connections within the construction industry to build housing for the homeless at deep discounts.
“It’s frustrating,” said Nani Medeiros. “We could have easily taken that $2 million, turned it into as much as $6 million. And turned around a couple more kauhale.”
Medeiros is currently working with Lt. Governor Josh Green to build the state’s first kauhale, a communal village made up of 36 tiny-homes in Kalaeloa. The cost to taxpayers is just $1.4 million, with the other half of the project being paid for through donations.
It’s been a long haul to get to this point, Medeiros says; ground was officially broken on the project last Thanksgiving. But shortly after utility work started, COVID-19 brought construction to a halt.
Building finally resumed just a few weeks ago.
Standing in front of more than a half-dozen framed-out homes, contractor Jake Johnson pointed behind him and said: “With a four-man crew, we did (all of) this in a month’s time.”
Medeiros says if HomeAid had been awarded CARES Act funding, projects like this would be going up across Oahu.
“We’ve been asking for help,” she said. “And we weren’t offered any.”
During a recent Police Commission meeting, Police Chief Susan Ballard made it a point to tell the media that if there were questions about the department’s CARES Act spending: “We would appreciate if they follow-up before they make accusations that they make. We would be more than happy to give the information.”
Hawaii News Now asked the Honolulu Police Department to explain how the expansion of POST has benefited the community. However, multiple requests for an interview with Chief Ballard about the POST program were denied.
In an email, a police department spokesperson said that between Apr. 8 and Nov. 27, POST had provided services to 714 people. Of those, the spokesperson said, they helped 362 of them get into another shelter, reunite with family or enter substance abuse treatment.
Fifteen people were placed into permanent housing.
The remainder of POST’s clients either left the program voluntarily or were required to leave for violating shelter rules.
While the Honolulu Police Department was responsible for compiling the list of what it wanted to purchase with the federal aid, it was ultimately up to Mayor Caldwell to sign off on it.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Waters. “It’s my hope that if we do get another trunch of CARES money, that it comes to the City Council first.”
Late Thursday, Hawaii News Now confirmed that a total of 14 vehicles were purchased for POST, including pick-up trucks and vans. That’s likely to drive the cost of the campsite up hundreds of thousands of dollars higher.