Tent cities are not the best solution for the homeless. A lot of people argue, persuasively, that they’re not even very good solutions, raising more concerns than casual campsites would. They are for people who are trying to maintain routines of school and work, so they can’t be too isolated, and ongoing security, sanitation and water needs would have to be addressed.
But homelessness on Oahu has reached the point at which even an imperfect idea should be pursued for what it might add to the social safety net.
At this point it’s wise that the city administration is maintaining focus on a more traditional solution, maximizing the help that homeless shelters provide. On Aug. 9, a new shuttle service will link four Kalaeloa shelters with the Kapolei transit center, enabling shelter residents to go about their day’s business. This was an important, if incremental step toward reckoning with the homeless as members of the community rather than people to be kept out of sight and mind.
What’s needed now is the involvement of public and private partners to confront the reality that the existing shelters and programs can’t address the full scope of the problem, which has led to camping on beaches. New laws correctly are in place to keep tents from overtaking public parks, a prohibition that should be expanded to other city properties, as the administration has recently proposed. Parks must be maintained for the use of the general public, period.
But if people are shooed from the parks and there is nowhere else to go, they will improvise. Uncontrolled tent cities have sprung up with or without permission, creating potential problems with trash, sanitation and security.
It would be far better for limited "safe zones" to be set up purposefully and with adequate regulation, so that people ejected from public places might have another place to go.
Although city and state governments should have a role in this, particularly where security provisions are concerned, a tent city is far from a simple solution and will bring costs that government can’t bear alone. A cooperative venture with private partners would be needed to make it sustainable—and, if the economy remains fragile for the foreseeable future, it will need to remain a viable option for some time.
The National Coalition for the Homeless published a report on tent cities in March. A survey of West Coast safe zones showed that successful models often involved participation of churches or other private entities that can contribute land and services. Some tent cities rotate among various locations for limited periods. All are options to be explored. On Oahu, land is at a premium and a suitable camp site may be off the beaten track, but finding ways to connect working families with the grid of workplaces and schools will be essential.
In the waning days of his administration, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann indicated some interest in this partnership approach. It ought to be a point of discussion during the coming mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.
Since the dissolution of the municipal housing department in 1998, the city has leaned on the state to take the lead on the homeless issue. In fact, the city, state and private community each owns a piece of this problem. Clearly the provision of some safety net for the neediest citizens is a broad government concern, and the community at large has a vested interest in its success.