Old Hilo hospital to serve new purpose

The main floor of the old Hilo Memorial Hospital is largely empty now, save for a few remnants of its past and the potential of its future.

The former — and aging — hospital, located near Rainbow Falls, had long housed Hawaii Island Adult Care, but it will soon help house Hilo’s homeless as one of the state’s new Ohana Zones.

In 2018, state legislators appropriated $30 million to establish at least three Ohana Zone sites on Oahu, and one each on Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai.

The law requires that Ohana Zones be placed on state and county land and that those spaces provide services to assist homeless individuals and families to access permanent housing.

“The purpose of the Ohana Zone … is to provide funding for a pilot program for the establishment of a facility that provides for emergency shelter beds and case management services, with the goal of improving the health and well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness and providing individuals experiencing homelessness with needed services,” said Sharon Hirota, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim.

Planning to use the space that was previously occupied by HIAC, which moved to a new facility in January, Hirota said the county intends to create an assessment center, where individuals can connect with a case manager and other services, as well as provide an emergency shelter for single men.

“We track individuals who are experiencing homelessness and when we look at our data, there are more unsheltered men (in Hilo) than any other population on our list,” she said. “So we will focus there.”

According to Hirota, it is anticipated that the emergency shelter, where individuals can stay for up to 90 days, will have 25 bunk beds, or 50 beds total.

“So the goal is within that 90 days, they will connect to a case manager and resources,” and secure appropriate housing based on their needs, she said.

In addition to housing counseling, funding will provide money management, benefits enrollment and life skills counseling for those experiencing homelessness, said Hirota. It will be in operation seven days a week and have staff on site 24-hours a day.

While it is an old building, Hirota said the former hospital’s structure is “solid,” but renovations are needed.

“We’ve had our appropriate departments from the county go in and do a walk through and (they) have given us the green light,” she said.

Doors and windows will be refurbished, and interior paint and other cosmetic fixes are needed, but no major overhauls are necessary at this point, Hirota said.

The county was recently awarded $2.5 million in Ohana Zone funding from the state for the Hilo project, dubbed “Keolahou,” for initial renovation work and operation expenses through June 30, 2021, and the county will continue to advocate for future funding to address homelessness, including continued funding for the project.

Hirota said the Hilo project is still in planning stages and a timeline for work has yet to be determined.

The county also has secured an additional $1.5 million in Ohana Zone funding for a similar project in West Hawaii that will focus on families, and is currently looking at the county-owned housing project Na Kahua Hale o Ulu Wini for that site, she said.

Hope Services Hawaii CEO Brandee Menino said the two projects had building and infrastructure already available and both were on county land.

“There is no family shelter in Kona,” she said. “This will be an opportunity to meet that gap in service in Kona, and that’s the same approach we took in Hilo.”

Menino said this is not going to be an end to homelessness, but it is one step toward that goal and will improve access to needed services.

“We’re really grateful and excited for this new opportunity,” she said. “This is the feedback we get from people we serve, (this is) what they’ve been asking for.”

Receiving the Ohana Zone funding is “critical for us being able to extend services to the much-needed individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness, so we can work along side with them in developing a plan as they transition to long-term, appropriate housing,” Hirota said.

Homelessness, both statewide and on Hawaii Island, appears to have decreased this year compared to last, according to results of the annual Homeless Point in Time Count released on April 9.

However, Gov. David Ige on Friday issued a second supplementary emergency proclamation that extends the disaster emergency relief period for homelessness across the state until June 11.

According to a news release from the state, “the purpose of the proclamation is to accelerate the completion of housing projects for individuals and families who are transitioning out of homelessness. It also expands shelter capacity and access to services.”

The initial emergency proclamation for homelessness was signed Dec. 14, 2018, to fast track the Ohana Zone initiative, with a supplemental proclamation signed on Feb. 12.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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