Hawaii’s homeless problem got unflattering national attention with the recent airing of a "Dog The Bounty Hunter" episode that showed the crew losing a suspect in a 50-acre encampment that sprang up in the brush between Waipahu High School and Pearl Harbor’s Middle Loch.
It highlighted a side of homelessness that’s less visible than the camps in beach parks from Waikiki to the Waianae Coast, but is growing as authorities clear the beaches.
At first blush, it seems to make sense to leave the homeless alone in mostly out-of-sight encampments such as the Waipahu site. It’s better than having them on our most precious beaches in the middle of the tourism engine that drives the state’s economy.
The problem is, these sites often spring up near schools and parks and become havens for drugs and other illegal activities.
Thus, much of the Waipahu compound has been torn down since the "Dog" episode filmed, with the people who lived there forced to move someplace else, where they’ll inevitably be seen as problems again.
It points to an inescapable reality: The homeless have to be somewhere, and we must deal with this instead of constantly moving them around if we hope to manage the problem.
There were more than 4,000 homeless people on Oahu in the latest survey, and that number is considered conservative. There’s little hope of getting them all in permanent affordable housing, and short-term shelters simply won’t be used by many who don’t want to be locked down at night.
It’s time to stop putting all of our focus on where the chronically homeless can’t be and figure out where they can be. As a practical matter, it’ll probably have to involve the use of public property.
A promising idea was a resolution in the Legislature this year proposing "safe zones" for homeless campers that would provide basic sanitation facilities and security at relatively little cost.
Designated areas could be set up in little time compared to building permanent shelters, and a well-managed plan would have the support of homeless advocates and social service agencies, which could conveniently deliver services to get more clients permanently off the streets.
If homeless people had a place to go when they’re booted from illegal encampments, we could in good conscience play hardball with the few incorrigibles who seem intent on gaming the system and taking over treasured public spaces.
House Concurrent Resolution 114 passed the House, but didn’t get a hearing in the Senate after it was opposed by the Lingle administration for bureaucratic reasons that seemed surmountable.
"Safe zones" aren’t a magic bullet for solving homelessness, but they could be a valuable tool for getting the problem under control while we chip away at the underlying causes.