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Hawai‘i lawmakers vow to tackle homelessness, housing shortages at Līhu‘e community meeting

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At a town hall meeting in Līhu‘e on Monday, State Coordinator on Homelessness John Mizuno vowed that Hawai‘i’s rates of homelessness would be cut in half by 2026, as he, along with State Rep. Luke Evslin and Hawai‘i House Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura presented upcoming strategies for combatting homelessness and housing shortages across the Garden Isle and state.

From left to right, State Coordinator on Homelessness John Mizuno, State Rep. Luke Evslin, and State House Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura are seen discussing housing issues with members of the public during a community town hall meeting at The Ulu Room in Lihu’e on the evening of Feb. 26, 2024.

A room of roughly 30 people gathered to hear how the officials plan to address housing and other critical issues during the 2024 legislative session.

In addition to housing, the Kauhule Initiative provides food, medication, job services, and other resources to help people get back on their feet.

“If we can get down to 2,500 homeless people (in the state) by the end of the governor’s first term, that would be a win,” Mizuno said at the meeting.

Mizuno said the Kauhale Initiative would reduce homelessness, crime, recidivism and taxpayer costs.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s December 2023 homelessness assessment report, there were 6,223 homeless people in Hawai‘i in 2023, with 3,907 of that total being unsheltered.

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The report relied on data from the Jan. 22, 2023, point-in-time count, a federally mandated survey that estimates the number of unsheltered and sheltered homeless people nationwide.

Hawai‘i also had the third-highest percentage of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the nation at 62.8%, behind California at 68% and Oregon at 64.6%.

About 30 people attended the community town hall meeting in Lihu’e on Feb. 26, 2024.

Evslin, who represents District 16 (Wailua, Hanamā‘ulu, Kapaia, Līhu‘e, Puhi, and a portion of ‘Ōma‘o) and serves as Chair of the House Committee on Housing, also spoke of his efforts to address housing shortages.

He detailed upcoming bills to loosen zoning code laws to make it easier to build in urban districts, a proposed fund that would provide loan money for homeowners to build additional dwelling units and plans to reduce the number of vacation rentals.

Evslin said increasing infrastructure support is necessary as Hawai‘i is underproducing new housing units. “Every year, we have a relatively slow-growing population but declining housing. So that’s a recipe for just rapidly spiking housing costs, which is what we have right now,” he said.

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Public attendees at the meeting, including Council Member Felicia Cowden, voiced a range of concerns to the state officials, including the urgent need for a safe space for homeless people.

Cowden called for the state to put up tents, porta-potties and dumpsters in designated safe zones as a temporary solution.

“People get tossed out and they have nowhere to go and we can’t build (housing) fast enough,” Cowden said. “And so we’re trying to create housing, the Kauhale is going. But in the meantime, we have people that are set aside,” she said.

She also claimed that the county has double the number of homeless people than was calculated during the 2023 point-in-time count.

Nakamura noted that the August 2023 Maui wildfires have impacted the state’s upcoming budget and funds for housing and other departments.

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”The cost of recovery, the cost of rebuilding, the cost of helping the victims are all kind of coming to the surface now regarding what FEMA will cover and what they won’t cover,” Nakamura said, adding that Maui wildfire victims not covered by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) are costing the state $400 to $600 million every day.

She also discussed budget impacts from hazard pay, where public employees were given additional compensation during the Maui wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That is a very significant hundreds of millions of dollars as well,” Nakamura said. “So those two factors now are going to have a big influence on this year’s budget.”

Nakamura provided an overview of the thousands of bills currently going through the legislative session, including requested funding for invasive species removal, homelessness and housing, the education system, the fire department, prisons and efforts to increase the number of healthcare professionals in the state.

“We are basically saying, this could be a really tough year to do many of the things that we would like to do because we have to take care of the hazard pay application and helping Maui recover,” she said. “The governor has asked the department heads to look at 15 to 20% cuts, and it is going to impact every aspect of the state.”

Other concerns raised by members of the public included the need for more mental health and substance abuse support, the lack of affordable housing, the impact of budget cuts for teachers and schools, and an overall shortage of workers due to housing shortages on the island.

The Monday night meeting was held during the legislature’s 5-day recess, which ends on Feb. 28. The recess is intended to encourage the public to get involved with the bills to be reviewed during the 2024 legislative session, which started on Jan. 17 and runs until May 3.

Emma Grunwald
Emma Grunwald is a reporter for Kauaʻi Now. You can reach her at emma.grunwald@pmghawaii.com.
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