City considers voucher program for Housing First

Published On: Mar 10 2014 07:00:26 PM HST   Updated On: Mar 10 2014 08:58:27 PM HST

During a Monday briefing before the City Council's Budget Committee, Community Services Director Pamela Witty-Oakland said the city is considering a voucher program for its Housing First initiative, which seeks to find shelter for the chronically homeless before focusing on issues of drug abuse or mental health.

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"We would be looking at multi-family type structures for the Housing First program, not single family homes," explained Witty-Oakland under questioning by council members.  

To help launch the controversial program, Mayor Kirk Caldwell is seeking $18.9 million in the capital improvements budget and another $3 million in the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. 

"We could probably acquire, or rehab and acquire a unit for about $100,000 per unit," said Witty-Oakland. "So, with $18.9 million we could get to 189 or 200 units."

The Community Services director said while multi-family type units would typically serve families under Housing First, the city wants smaller units for individuals. To qualify for the program, a person or head of household must earn 50 percent or below of a geographical area's median income.

"Some of the new construction trends across our country are to build micro-apartments, they're 250 square feet, but they provide everything you need to support an individual in a home setting," said Witty-Oakland.

Getting the Housing First program off the ground is not dependent on the capital improvements budget alone. Witty-Oakland explained a voucher program could launch quickly if the council approves her department's operating budget for the initiative, which would serve about 110 individuals.

"We would be able to move on that as soon as the fiscal year started in July," she said. "We've got over 4,000 folks who are considered homeless, either living in shelters or unsheltered, so we have a need to address."

Another option for the city is to look at a fixed location for Housing First in areas where homelessness is a major problem, for example Oahu's Leeward Coast and Chinatown.

However, a city-owned property at 1333 River Street is not an option after members of the Chinatown community loudly protested the Housing First concept. The parcel was purchased with Community Development Block Grant funding in 1992 for $6.75 million.

"There's going to be some community education on what Housing First really means," said Jun Yang, executive director of the city's Office of Housing. "Many people think of Housing First as something like a shelter, (but) it is not like a shelter. We have case management that will be wrapped in with helping the person to become independent."

The city is also looking at the possibility of using some units from the city's affordable housing portfolio for the Housing First program. Witty-Oakland said that would only happen if residents currently living at those 12 complexes agree.

"We're going to consider anything within the county that will work, and that the community is going to support moving forward," she said.


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