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Kaua‘i County Council, mayor’s administration clash over homelessness solutions

LIHU‘E — Stark differences in opinion between the mayor’s administration and Kaua‘i County Council were made apparent this week, as a request for a $19.3 million County Housing Agency budget dissolved into a debate over homelessness solutions.

As County Housing Agency Director Adam Roversi requested approval to add a homeless coordinator assistant, council Chair Mel Rapozo and Council Member Billy DeCosta questioned the purpose of such a position and what impact it would have for the county.

“I want to see where the benefit value of that funding is going toward, because every department wants a new position or two positions,” DeCosta said. “But I want to make sure you guys have a plan in place if you’re going to consider this position, and what can it do to improve the homeless and houseless situation right now?”

Roversi replied, telling DeCosta about half of the homeless coordinator’s time is spent responding to individual complaints from the community or other government departments. Roversi argued that the coordinator’s time would be better spent developing an action plan if the additional position was approved.

“To Chair Rapozo’s point — what’s our plan to address homelessness?” he asked. “We’re the only county that doesn’t have a detailed written plan over how to, in a methodical way, deal with homelessness over the long term. Those are the sorts of things that our current homeless coordinator could address and spend more time on — those long-term solutions — if we had an assistant to deal with those day-to-day triage sorts of calls.”

In turn, Rapozo suggested the position’s goal should be specified before the proposed position is approved, questioning whether it even fell in line with the agency’s responsibilities.

“I do not expect that person to be driving to (manage individual cases) … as I understand the position, that is not the function,” he said. “We’re not doing the social services — we’re trying to end homeless-houselessness. I guess for me — you don’t have to answer today — I would like to see, really, what this position does and why we need another one.”

The discussion then quickly shifted to the notion of “safe zones,” or homeless encampments run and regulated by the county. Rapozo and DeCosta both spoke in strong support of creating such a space, arguing that its impact on the county’s homeless residents would be far-reaching.

“You are going to build another Kealaula, but how many more homeless move in there?” DeCosta asked. “We’ve got more numbers than you can help. You go along the beach, seeing a bunch of homeless behind the airport — they built their own houses out of pallets, and they’re trying to live some place. I’m looking at trying to find a spot for the people that want to live somewhat dignified off the grid, and to make it happen somewhere.”

County Managing Director Michael Dahilig responded, suggesting such a project would be much easier said than done.

“I think if we’re going to go down that path, it does take a big policy shift for us to go down that realm,” he said. “Are we going to make large investments in that area? It’s not impossible, but it’s something that I think … there are other agencies besides the county that have tried to take pieces of this issue.”

“If you look across the state, we’ve had many agencies trying to figure out — is it a supply issue with respect to affordable housing? Is it a drug epidemic issue? Is it something relating to sheltering? So, not one size fits all, and I can tell you with confidence that we have been touching at least all of those three areas mentioned with some degree of participation,” said Dahilig.

Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami chimed in, arguing that the county’s lack of homelessness solutions extends far beyond his administration.

“When state hospitals were underfunded, under-resourced, and you had media like Geraldo Rivera going in and doing exposés, the government thought it was cheaper to shut them down rather than to resource them appropriately,” he said.

“And so what ended up happening is, a lot of people with mental health issues ended up in the streets. They don’t belong in our prisons because they’re not criminals, but there is literally no place for them to go.”

Kawakami continued, adding that failed safe zone projects on Hawai‘i Island have left his administration trying to ensure a similar program on Kaua‘i wouldn’t meet the same fate.

“It’s such a more complicated issue than just building homes or creating an area,” he said. “I mean, if you take a look, many of the encampments, they’ve already created an area, but you have issues like with security, issues like waste disposal. You have issues like sanitary conditions that they’re living in. And that’s why we’re hesitant to designate a park.”

“If you guys hear the communities surrounding these parks and their complaints — if you folks can think of a good park to start off with, we’ll take a look at it,” Kawakami added. “But it’s a double-edged sword when we’re trying to balance the needs of our community as a whole — and our homeless population is part of our community. It’s just got to be one of the most complex challenges that our administration has faced.”


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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