‘Safe zones’ may be needed op­tion

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES -

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.

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