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A good motivation to help homeless

LAST UPDATED: 8:35 p.m. HST, Oct 20, 2011

The upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference should be a motivator to deal effectively with Hawaii's homeless problem, without devolving into an excuse for draconian measures. The long-range effort should result in the homeless departing Waikiki, and APEC is a tangible catalyst for eventually achieving that elusive goal.

If APEC, with its global prestige and media spotlight, isn't reason enough to kick-start some actual results, we fear that little will. And for cynics who scoff that local leaders would be motivated by public relations for visiting dignitaries — so what? Any in-roads made for the community good would be welcome indeed — just ask any merchant or resident who comes in contact daily with the encampments.

The challenge is not unique to APEC, where the host city always focuses on "the homeless and problems of the city," said Marc Alexander, the state's homeless coordinator. In 2007, for example, police in Sydney, Australia, adhered to a "protocol for homeless people" by moving them out of a restricted APEC area, a protocol that was introduced during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Some would like to apply that protocol to all of Waikiki, the main cylinder of Hawaii's economic engine, but that would be impractical in the immediate future. A more realistically restrictive area would be around a walkway between Ala Wai Canal and the Hawaii Convention Center, the APEC conference's epicenter. More than a dozen homeless people populated that area last week.

In tandem with the protocol, an idea that deserves serious consideration now is a pilot-project "safe zone," an outdoor alternative for homeless people who refuse to live in shelters. Rather than a last-minute chaotic "sweep" with little foreplanning, there seems time enough — barely — to set up a designated tent city in the urban core to test if this is a workable option, as it has been in several other metro cities.

Alexander is in the midst of implementing the state's 90-Day Plan on Homelessness, which was launched in May and ends only a month from now. That is three months before the APEC conference, which is expected to draw 20,000 attendees and the leaders of 21 member nations, including President Barack Obama.

It is yet unclear how things are going, and if long-term seeds are being sown. A key step in Gov. Neil Abercrombie's plan is to discourage the homeless from sleeping at Kapiolani Park and other areas of Waikiki. About 22 percent of Oahu's more than 4,000 homeless live in East Honolulu, including Waikiki. The Institute for Human Services in Iwilei reports an increased demand for its meals for the homeless since Abercrombie urged an end to providing food in parks, beaches and streets

Waikiki's tourism business people are understandably frustrated by the continued presence of the homeless outside their hotels or restaurants and are "anxiously waiting to see how we can participate," said former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and Abercrombie's Democratic primary opponent in last year's gubernatorial race. Yes, it'll be an ongoing struggle to control homelessness, a problem that will never go away entirely. But a firm, decisive game plan is now needed, as failure or success will surely be magnified in APEC's global spotlight. The governor's policy beyond the current plan should be more ambitious to obtain results.

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