State lawmakers are considering bills to create official campgrounds for the homeless in Honolulu, an approach that is being strongly opposed by state Homelessness Coordinator Scott Morishige and the state Department of Human Services.
Measures scheduled for hearings today and Friday would instruct Gov. David Ige’s administration to create “puuhonua safe zones” where homeless people would be allowed to camp. The zones would remain in place until the Legislature determines that homelessness is no longer a crisis in Hawaii.
House Bill 83 and Senate Bill 1223 would also require that each safe zone be furnished with appropriate hygiene facilities, and would be staffed with security and social service workers as needed. The “peaceful consumption of alcoholic beverages” would be allowed in the safe zones, according to the bills.
The Senate Human Services Committee on Wednesday gave tentative approval to Senate Bill 1243, which would authorize the state to use part of Sand Island State Recreation Area and to seek out an unspecified property in Hawaii Kai as homeless campsites.
The House Human Services Committee also held a hearing Wednesday on House Bill 1447, which would establish campgrounds for the homeless on vacant government lands. Lawmakers plan to decide the fate of that bill on Feb. 15.
Those ideas don’t sit well with the Ige administration. Morishige said Hawaii has already tried the campsite approach, and learned that homeless camps become unsafe for residents once they grow to a certain size. They also raise concerns about health and sanitation, he said.
He cited the example of Aala Park in the early 1990s when the city allowed homeless people to camp there, and a number of violent incidents involving residents followed. A more recent experience involved a large homeless encampment that sprang up in Kakaako, which by 2015 had grown to have 300 people living there.
State Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked and injured during a visit to the Kakaako camp, and both the Aala and Kakaako camps were finally dismantled by authorities.
Morishige said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a strong stance against legalizing homeless encampments, and instead steers states toward providing permanent housing for the homeless. He said state policies should be consistent with national best practices on the issue.
“We’re really focusing on how can we move people off the streets as quickly as possible and into permanent homes,” he said. “We want to make sure with the limited resources available that we have to address homelessness that we’re able to focus on … permanent housing, that we focus the limited resources that we have on evidence-based programs like Housing First that we know are proven to be effective.”
The longer-term state strategy involves creating more affordable housing, Morishige said.
Senate Human Services Chairman Josh Green said he plans to press ahead with SB 1243 to create one or two small-scale pilot homeless campsites. He said he made the recommendation for a Hawaii Kai site because the bill came from the Hawaii Kai community.
Mike Goodman, director of the Hawaii Kai Homeless Task Force, is strongly in favor of the campsite idea and said he drafted an early version of the bill. Goodman said camps offer a cost-effective way to provide shelter for people who don’t want to live in official homeless shelters.
However, Goodman’s testimony suggested the Sand Island recreation area or vacant government lands at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station and Mapunapuna might be suitable locations for campsites. Goodman said he didn’t propose Hawaii Kai because campsites make more sense in industrial areas than residential neighborhoods, but said he has no objection to Green’s proposal.
Green said lawmakers generally support the approach the Ige administration is taking to deal with homelessness, but “from my perspective, it’s not one size fits all, so we might need to have some other options for housing people, especially people with chronic homelessness, drug addiction and other issues.”
He added, “We don’t want to go back in time to when there were very large encampments and that project didn’t really work, but we do want other options for them in case they have to house people, so we’ll pass the bill.”
Decision-making by the Senate Housing Committee on SB 1243 is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. today in Room 225 of the state Capitol. That committee will also decide today how to proceed with SB 1223, another measure that would require the Ige administration to create campgrounds for the homeless.
The House Human Services Committee is scheduled to hold a separate hearing on HB 83 at 9:30 a.m. Friday in Room 329.