‘Safe zones’ may be needed option
There’s a discouraging feeling of deja vu in the indefinite closure of Kakaako Waterfront Park and adjacent state parks because of lawless homeless activity. Since safety concerns closed the park Sunday night following a rash of dog bites, fires and vandalism, city crews accompanied by police have been clearing tents and tarps tied to scores of encampments inhabited by an estimated 180 homeless people. Two summers ago, more than 300 homeless people were living in the park.
Back then, alarming sanitation concerns and safety problems, which included an attack on state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako), prompted city and state redouble efforts to get people living on the street into shelters and and permanent housing. In mid-October 2015, the state issued the first of what would add up to seven emergency proclamations addressing homelessness.
But here we are two years later — despite pursuing strategies that have yielded progress on mainland cities — still grappling with how to effectively help Oahu’s nearly 5,000 homeless people, the highest per capita homeless rate in the nation. Our troubles are compounded by the high cost of living and a scant inventory or affordable housing. Then there’s the everyday T-shirt weather, which makes street living relatively comfortable compared to just about any other city. Despite the tenacity of social service agencies and nonprofits endeavoring to help the homeless tackle everything from financial setbacks to substance abuse and mental health problems, many continue to resist opportunity to move into a formal shelter. Some chafe at shelter rules. Others worry about being separated from pets or belongings. That’s why Honolulu City Councilman Ernie Martin’s two-part plan, which hinges on the development of government-sanctioned “safe zones,” while not a permanent solution to our homelessness problem, is worthy of serious discussion. Martin has introduced Bill 87, which would expand the city’s socalled “sit-lie ban” across the entire island — restricting sitting or lying on public sidewalks. Also, he has introduced Resolution 17-277, which calls for the creation of safe zones for homeless people who would be displaced by an islandwide ban. Since the Council adopted the first sit-lie ban in Waikiki in 2014 — followed by measures to expand the ban to include sidewalks in the downtown area, Wahiawa, Kailua and Kaneohe — uprooted homeless encampments have migrated to various other neighborhoods. And amid sweeps in parks, shoreline areas and elsewhere, some homeless people simply linger nearby, reclaiming encampment sites after city crews drive away. Martin envisions a safe zone in each Council district that could resemble Camp Kikaha on Hawaii island. It was set up a few months ago, when county officials moved nearly 70 homeless people out of Old Airport Park. About half moved into the county’s new tent city — essentially tarps and cots situated next to a county emergency shelter. Safe zones — bare-bones campgrounds, equipped with restroom and shower facilities — hold potential to serve as a stopgap, allowing homeless people to tend to daily hygiene in a secure setting while also holding onto their possessions and receiving services aimed at securing permanent housing. Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, has balked at the idea, noting that also opposed are the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In other places, he said, such strategy has shuffled the problem “out of the public sphere as quickly as possible,” resulting in neglect and expensive campground operations.
But Oahu is a small island. The homeless population here has been growing before our eyes for nearly a decade. It’s unlikely that the problem could be hidden away.
As a practical matter, Council members should work in tandem with their communities to create safe zone plans suited for their districts. Each Council member has $2 million worth of homeless-related funds to use in their district. It’s time to tap that funding and apply some fresh strategy to this complicated, still-fixable problem.