Shelters could lose 100s of beds under state proposal

Shelters could lose 100s of beds under state proposal
Published: Nov. 22, 2016 at 9:38 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2016 at 6:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state is proposing a series of measure that would cut more than 660 homeless shelter beds statewide and limit stays to no more than 30 days.

The changes are aimed at bolstering shelter privacy and moving people into permanent housing more quickly, but they're drawing wide concern from homeless advocates.

Eight Hawaii homeless shelters would be impacted by the new rules, which require shelters to expand sleeping areas to minimum of 30 square feet per person.

"That would cause us to decide which group of people -- those who have the most need, or those who we feel like we can serve best -- to provide shelter for," said Maude Cummings, executive director of Maui Family Life Center.

Officials say the changes, included in state requests for proposals for homeless services, were structured to bring shelters in compliance with new laws and are still a work in progress. They say the overall goal is to design a statewide system that emphasizes the housing first approach.

"The only way we're going to resolve homelessness in the long run is to place people into permanent homes with the appropriate type of services, not only to get them into housing but to help them remain in housing overtime and that is our state's continued focus," said Scott Morishige, the state's homeless coordinator.

But shelter officials say the proposed changes will dramatically eliminate much-needed beds and increase operating expenses.

"I think that the rules should be vetted a little better knowing the implications that it would have on the shelters and especially how the homeless people are going to be affected," said Jason Espero, director of Waikiki Health's Next Step Shelter.

Under the proposals, the shelter would see a reduction of 100 of their 230 beds.

"It would essentially reverse all the work that the city, state, and service providers have been doing with reducing homelessness, moving people off the streets, and into the shelters," Espero said.

Jennifer Ho, a senior adviser with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said there isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy to addressing homelessness, but added that coordination is key to ensuring better results.

"I'm really heartened to see some of the big changes that are being put into place here, rethinking the way that shelters look, rethinking the role that shelters play, a much greater emphasis on rapid rehousing, and some new very creative permanent supportive housing projects, especially to get at folks that have been unsheltered and chronically homeless the longest," she said.

Another proposed rule change would require half of all clients staying at an emergency shelter to be out within 30 days. Of that number, at least half would have to move into permanent housing.

Institute for Human Services Executive Director Connie Mitchell says that goal is overly aggressive and fails to consider Hawaii's dearth of affordable housing. She said on average families stay in the nonprofit's emergency shelter for 109 days.

"We currently have a shortage of housing, so to put that kind of expectation on shelter providers when we don't control the destination is unreasonable. If there was housing available all the time, we could make it happen," she said. "Our goal is to move people into permanent housing. We've been striving for that for a long time."

National experts, meanwhile, say shelters are most effective when they house people safely and quickly move them out.

"I think that shelter comes in a lot of different forms, and it looks very different in different communities," said Katy Miller, regional coordinator of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "But when a shelter is effective, it's really meant to be a quick, short-term solution and so communities have created shelter in a way that they can house people safely, and in a dignified way, but the idea is to move people out of shelter quickly."

Another proposal would require one toilet for every 10 people.

IHS officials crunched the numbers and determined if that rule goes into effect, they would have had to turn away 85 people Monday night from the various shelters they operate on Oahu.

The potential rule changes are being considered as part of the request for proposal process for new shelter contracts, which begin on February 1.

State officials say the rule changes help expedite progress toward all shelters' ultimate goal -- moving homeless people into permanent housing.

"The goal of the RFP that was released for shelter contracts is really part of a broader response by the department to build a housing focus system," Morishige said. "They'll move homeless individuals and families more quickly off the street into permanent housing."

Hawaii has the highest homeless rate per capita in the country, and it's one of only four states where more than 50 percent of the homeless population is unsheltered.

Miller, of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said those figures underscores gaps in the safety net.

"Something that is particularly true where we see very large numbers of people that are living unsheltered -- we know that it's not only the housing market, but it is also the crisis response system, the shelter system and how communities are able to move people quickly out of homelessness. All of those cases need to be addressed simultaneously," she said.

DHS officials say this procurement is still in process and providers will have an opportunity to provide comment and feedback, adding that the RFP can be amended to address concerns.

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