There’s no money or land for it yet, but several lawmakers want to give "safe zones"—a place where homeless can set up camp without fear of citation or property confiscation—a serious look.
State Reps. Tom Brower, Rida Cabanilla and John Mizuno held a state Capitol briefing last week on this and other potential solutions for the chronically homeless.
And Mayor Mufi Hannemann added his support to tent cities, at least in concept. There needs to be rules, he said last week, as well as sanitation and private partners to secure and operate the site.
It’s not the first time the topic has come up. The volunteer and nonprofit sector are already treating camps as part of the landscape, providing outreach services whether or not government signs on.
Michael Danner, who has worked with the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, visits a Windward Oahu site in an undisclosed location and works with residents to govern themselves and figure out ways to share the work of running the camp. Danner answered a Star-Advertiser query via e-mail.
"Basically my approach has been to live with them, so as to get to know them as much as is possible, before trying to offer my idea of help, which in reality may or may not be any help at all," he wrote. "Long -term, we do hope to be able to lease or buy land from someone … or maybe some church that has land."
Any site would need water and basic services; a decision to live there would come with "some basic responsibilities and commitments," he added.
Significant private participation would be needed to make this happen, because city and state governments are leery of the operational costs—covering things like security and sanitation—and of the legal liability.
Debbie Kim Morikawa directs the Department of Community Services, the agency coordinating the city’s response to homelessness, including a recent symposium. The city administration does have some concerns, she said, about the downside of safe zones.
Tent cities spring up largely because people want some accommodation that’s unfettered by typical shelter rules, Morikawa said. If the government were to set up camps on its own land, however, officials would need the same shelter-type rules the families were trying to avoid, to maintain order and to avoid clashes with neighboring properties, she said.
"It’s kind of an oxymoron," she said. "In order for them to be safe and have sanitation, there needs to be rules," she added. "People think all you have to do is create a ‘safe zone,’ but that’s not the case."
Similarly, state officials have been dubious about sponsoring a camp. The Lingle administration testified against bills in the last legislative session that would enable campsites on city or state park land, said Russell Saito, who heads the state’s homeless solution efforts.
"Besides no one having the money for this, it would represent an inappropriate use of the land," he wrote in an e-mailed response to the Star-Advertiser. "And if unimproved parkland was used, because of the liability involved, state-sponsored campsites would need to be provided with water and sanitary facilities and managed to ensure the safety of the occupants. Those are costs that no one has spare funds to cover."
But other state and city governments have not been so hesitant to act. The National Coalition for the Homeless studied 11 camp communities on the West Coast for its "Tent Cities in America" report, published in March. Of that group, only two were unsanctioned, the remainder authorized either through local ordinances or zoning or other use permits.
Success has come in various forms. Some do well on public land located some distance from residences, avoiding the not-in-my-backyard opponents. Others, such as Tent City 4 in the greater Seattle area, has worked by relocating every 90 days within a network of church-owned properties.
Whatever the formula, some people here believe that tent cities are hard to suppress, so government should help to create the conditions for their success. One of them is Doran Porter, who heads the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance. He also thinks public-private partnerships are essential.
"If (a tent city) is intentional rather than unplanned, and if we put systems in place that have adequate sanitation and security and, hopefully, assistance so it doesn’t become a permanent solution, it works better," Porter said. "The city cannot do it alone. They’ve shown that … it requires everyone to participate to come up with solutions."
No road maps exist to guide city, state and private players, so efforts have been halting. Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, said there’s good reason for caution. Nobody has really crunched the numbers to see how much this theoretically cheap solution really would cost over time, Mitchell said: Tent cities typically persist for a long time. Security, living facilities, social services all require a hefty investment, she said.
Mitchell added that the most effective use of limited funds may be to add more transitional housing units to the state’s affordable housing inventory. Many of the people who resort to camping are working families, who often regain their footing if given focused assistance in the more stable, home-like environment.
Hawaii can’t afford to invest too much of its public funds on strategies such as tent cities that are relatively untested here.
"If some private land owner would step up and do this, then God bless them," she said. "My concern is if this would end up draining taxpayer resources away from other strategies that we know do work."