Coun­cil seeks ‘safe zones’

A leg­isla­tive group works to find va­cant parcels for home­less en­camp­ments

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Nanea Kalani nkalani@starad­ver­tiser.com

Aleg­isla­tive work­ing group tasked with rec­om­mend­ing pos­si­ble sites for “safe zones” for home­less en­camp­ments on state land in Honolulu will ex­pand its search is­land­wide — and po­ten­tially statewide — af­ter rul­ing out a few va­cant parcels in the city’s ur­ban core. Law­mak­ers ear­lier this year man­dated that the state Hawaii In­ter­a­gency Coun­cil on Home­less­ness form a work­ing group to re­visit the idea of cre­at­ing govern­ment-sanc­tioned safe zones, where home­less peo­ple could legally camp or dwell tem­po­rar­ily in small struc­tures be­fore mov­ing to per­ma­nent hous­ing. The coun­cil was formed in 2011 and is made up of state depart­ment di­rec­tors, fed­eral agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives and com­mu­nity lead­ers who are charged with find­ing so­lu­tions to end home­less­ness. With side­walk sweeps and park clo­sures dis­plac­ing peo­ple liv­ing in tents, the safe zones ef­fort aims to pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive for the is­land’s nearly 5,000 home­less peo­ple — the high­est per capita

The pol­icy now is just push­ing peo­ple from neigh­bor­hood to neigh­bor­hood ... . ” Sen. Will Espero Chair­man, Sen­ate Hous­ing Com­mit­tee

home­less rate in the na­tion. Act 212, which be­came law with­out Gov. David Ige’s sig­na­ture, di­rected the work­ing group to con­sider sites on state land within ur­ban Honolulu. Scott Mor­ishige, the gover­nor’s co­or­di­na­tor on home­less­ness, who serves on the work­ing group, said three iden­ti­fied parcels — in Kakaako, Kal­ihi and near the Nimitz High­way viaduct — have var­i­ous problems that make them im­prac­ti­cal. Mor­ishige said a 2.17-acre site on Po­hukaina Street in Kakaako next to Mother Wal­dron Park al­ready is be­ing primed for de­vel­op­ment as af­ford­able apart­ments and an ele­men­tary school. An­other nearly 1-acre par­cel in Kal­ihi serves as an elec­tri­cal ease­ment at­tached to the Kal­ihi-Waena Neigh­bor­hood Park. And the third site, a 1.35-acre in­dus­trial lot mauka of the Nimitz viaduct, is near the city’s Keehi refuse trans­fer sta­tion and may con­tain haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als.

“Be­cause there are is­sues that have been iden­ti­fied with all three parcels, the (Depart­ment of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources) has been asked to ex­pand the search for va­cant land parcels is­land­wide beyond just the Honolulu ur­ban core,” Mor­ishige said Thurs­day dur­ing a work­ing group meet­ing. “We are also go­ing to ask that they look po­ten­tially at parcels statewide in other coun­ties as well.” The safe zone con­cept is con­tro­ver­sial. Sup­port­ers say le­gal tent cities are vi­able op­tions where home­less peo­ple can live with fewer re­stric­tions while still ac­cess­ing so­cial ser­vices. They ex­ist in Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, New Mex­ico and other ar­eas.

Op­po­nents ar­gue that safe zones aren’t cost-ef­fec­tive and di­vert re­sources from providers of ser­vices to the home­less. The prac­tice is dis­cour­aged by the the U.S. In­ter­a­gency Coun­cil on Home­less, and a pre­vi­ous work­ing group of the state in­ter­a­gency coun­cil rec­om­mended against des­ig­nat­ing “safe fa­cil­i­ties” in a 2012 re­port.

In ad­di­tion to iden­ti­fy­ing po­ten­tial sites, the work­ing group is be­ing asked to rec­om­mend tar­get pop­u­la­tions for safe zones, types of fa­cil­i­ties or dwelling units that would be per­mit­ted, the es­ti­mated cost and a time­line for a pi­lot project.

State Sen. Will Espero, chair­man of the Sen­ate Hous­ing Com­mit­tee, made pub­lic com­ments at Thurs­day’s meet­ing in sup­port of the ef­fort.

“This is one of most crit­i­cal is­sues fac­ing our govern­ment and our gen­er­a­tion at this time. We ac­tu­ally have a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren, fam­i­lies, work­ing in­di­vid­u­als who can’t af­ford to live in our state,” said Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iro­quois Point). “The pol­icy now is just push­ing peo­ple from neigh­bor­hood to neigh­bor­hood, from com­mu­nity to com­mu­nity. That is not log­i­cal,” he added. “We need safe zones so that th­ese in­di­vid­u­als have a place to go that is safe, where they are se­cure, where they are not has­sled, and most im­por­tantly where they can get as­sis­tance and re­sources.”

Espero said home­less peo­ple who were swept off of the streets caused an es­ti­mated half-mil­lion dol­lars in dam­age to fa­cil­i­ties at Kakaako Water­front, Gate­way and Ke­walo Basin parks. The state in­def­i­nitely closed the parks Sun­day night af­ter park of­fi­cials said they could no longer en­sure the safety of park users fol­low­ing a se­ries of dog bites, fires and van­dal­ism at­trib­uted to an es­ti­mated 180 home­less peo­ple liv­ing along the shore­line. “Had those in­di­vid­u­als had a safe zone to go to that would never have hap­pened,” Espero said. Cur­rently there is one safe zone in the state — Camp Kikaha in Kona. The coun­tyrun en­camp­ment was set up af­ter of­fi­cials cleared the Old Kona Air­port beach park of 70 home­less peo­ple ear­lier this year. Sev­en­teen peo­ple were placed in shel­ters or longterm hous­ing within two weeks, while 23 oth­ers moved to Camp Kikaha, where cov­ered cots, por­ta­ble toi­lets and show­ers are avail­able, Lance Ni­imi, ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant to Hawaii is­land Mayor Harry Kim, said by phone dur­ing the work­ing group meet­ing. Ni­imi said the county is spend­ing $21,207 a month to op­er­ate the camp. On Oahu, the city ex­per­i­mented with a safe zone in the early 1990s, when it cre­ated a tent city in Aala Park, but shut it down be­cause of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. Sev­eral tes­ti­fiers at Thurs­day’s meet­ing en­cour­aged the work­ing group to con­sider con­vert­ing a large camp near Wa­ianae Boat Har­bor into a safe zone by sup­ply­ing run­ning water and util­i­ties and per­haps even­tu­ally re­plac­ing the tents with more per­ma­nent struc­tures. Some said the camp, known as Pu‘uhonua o Wa­ianae (mean­ing refuge or sanc­tu­ary of Wa­ianae) and home to 170 res­i­dents, al­ready has a suc­cess­ful model of pro­vid­ing a sta­ble liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment cou­pled with self-gov­er­nance, where res­i­dents abide by rules and con­trib­ute to the com­mu­nity. Twin­kle Borge, known as the vil­lage leader, spoke in sup­port of es­tab­lish­ing safe zones. “I may not have the de­gree or the bach­e­lor’s, but I do have the heart,” said Borge, who noted it’s manda­tory for chil­dren in the camp to at­tend school and church.

“My thing is not stay­ing there long term. My thing is help­ing them get to the next level. I wanna be able not only to help Pu‘uhonua o Wa­ianae, but I wanna be ef­fec­tive for help the whole is­land,” she said. “I wanna be able to help those peo­ple that they’re sweep­ing come into our area and let me help you get to the next level.”

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