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Close Kakaako encampment

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The response of homeless teenagers who admit beating up state Rep. Tom Brower reveals how entrenched a sprawling encampment in Kakaako has become, feeding the youths’ alarming mindset that sidewalk squatters are entitled to the same expectation of privacy as property owners. They are not.

This case is an outrageous one, simultaneously highlighting the dismal conditions in which a growing number of Honolulu children live, and the impotent city, state and federal government response to what is undeniably a crisis on Oahu.

That Brower, vilified in 2013 for taking a sledgehammer to homeless people’s shopping carts, apparently did not identify himself as he legitimately documented deteriorating conditions in his legislative district reflects his own judgment. The minors said he dismissed their objections to being photographed or videotaped, an assertion he disputes. Brower described attackers that came out of nowhere, and said there were no people in the few pictures he took before he was assaulted and his camera stolen.

Bottom line: There is no justification for the violence committed, no excuse for the attackers, juveniles though they may be — at least the two who have come forward.

Brower was attacked Monday afternoon near the Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako, at the homeless encampment that has ballooned to include about 183 tents and hundreds of people. That’s grown from 158 tents in early June and from 116 tents in early May. Brower suffered facial injuries and other bumps and bruises and was treated and released at a local hospital.

Two assailants, ages 14 and 17, apologized after the fact and offered Brower his belongings back; they said they did not know he was a legislator when he showed up, started filming and refused requests to stop. "We don’t like that when people come and do that without permission," the older teen told Hawaii News Now. "How would you feel if I walked in your house and just started recording you, right? We live here, this our house, respect it. We don’t choose to live like this. If I had a choice to go to a house right now and live in that house, and I can pay for it. Trust and believe, I would be in my house. I wouldn’t be living underneath one tent."

In the aftermath, the public outcry has settled along polar-opposite lines, with some people calling for the homeless village to be unceremoniously dismantled and others urging no sympathy for Brower. Neither extreme view is helpful.

Brower cares deeply about homelessness, which is a problem in his district especially, and he should use this incident as a way to galvanize action that leads to real solutions, not headlines and juvenile arrests. Engaging the youths who wrongly attacked him would show true leadership, reconciliation led by a thoughtful adult in a city that is failing a generation of poor children and condemning them to life on the streets, where aggression is a survival skill. He should dig deep, switch tactics and lead the way.

It is wrong to denigrate Brower for being there. It could have easily been a tourist, a museum visitor, or anyone else with a camera whom the teens deemed as showing insufficient "respect." No one should fuel that dangerous, antisocial world view.

The Kakaako settlement must come down, and soon. In the meantime, a heavier police presence is necessary to ensure security. Brower had the right to take photographs on a public street. He is not the first outsider made unwelcome in that public space, which is next to a waterfront park and a kids’ museum. The longer the state and city allow the encampment to exist, and to grow, the harder it will be to dismantle. And grow it surely will — as will the false sense of entitlement and ownership of the public street.

This incident should build support for a homeless safe zone like the one planned at Sand Island, a designated space where homeless residents would have a greater expectation of privacy than a public sidewalk provides. Having a space where people can sleep, eat and store their stuff — and where families can reside — is essential as a transitional step. The real solution is in permanent housing.

At the federal level, Hawaii’s congressional delegation must step up to gain emergency funding for Hawaii to address homelessness. A disproportionate number of Hawaii’s homeless people are Pacific migrants who arrive here under the U.S. Compact of Free Association. The federal government shirks its obligation, and must not continue to do so.

What happened to Tom Brower was terrible. How all levels of the government respond can improve Hawaii’s homelessness crisis, or make it worse.

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