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Homeless need true ‘safe zone’

Rising violent crime near a sprawling homeless camp in Kakaako rightly intensifies calls to dismantle the hardened encampment that has grown to about 200 tents and an unknown number of people.

This is no “safe zone,” least of all for the human beings dwelling there.

The Honolulu Police Department reports an increase in the number of assaults, thefts, property damage incidents and arguments in the area makai of Pohukaina Street between Punchbowl and Ward avenues, which includes the Kakaako waterfront area where “the village” unfortunately was allowed to take root.

The number of “simple assaults” reported has more than doubled in a year, from 13 in the first half of 2014 to 29 in the first half of 2015.

More serious “aggravated assaults” also jumped, from one in the first half of 2014 to seven for that time period this year.

These statistics reflect only those cases that HPD handles (state sheriff’s deputies also have jurisdiction) and amplify anecdotal reports of increasing crime and violence in the region, including at least three muggings in the past month.

The homeless people herded to the shantytown by enforcement of “sit-lie” bans elsewhere in Honolulu need a true safe zone, an authorized, supervised area where they can set up tents within parameters and have access to simple hygiene facilities.

Such a setup would be better for the homeless, and cause fewer problems for nearby businesses, schools and homes.

The camp’s current location, blocking public sidewalks near the Children’s Discovery Center, the University of Hawaii medical school and Kakaako Waterfront Park, clearly is not the correct one. Its presence is long past untenable.

Although the city and state governments are working with area landowners to provide a long-term solution, the slow pace of progress indicates that homelessness on Oahu remains a less urgent priority for politicians and policymakers than it should be.

An attack on July 17 serves to remind that homeless people themselves are perhaps most likely to be victimized, unable to secure themselves or their belongings against predators who wield physical might in a street society that leaves the very young, old and infirm especially at risk.

Potential victims can neither avoid the criminals, who live among them, nor mount a proper defense, given that they and their belongings are continually exposed.

Court records document how on that day, in broad daylight, a homeless man who lives at the camp was robbed, beaten and slashed by a group of young men at the intersection of Ohe and Ilalo streets, after he refused their request to “sample” his bicycle. One hit him with a metal pipe while others slashed him with a knife; his bicycle was stolen.

Police have charged another resident of the homeless encampment in the attack, a 22-year-old man with a history of past arrests.

Other recent violent incidents include the choking of a 34-year-old woman, allegedly by her homeless boyfriend; the punching and attempted robbery of a Kakaako Waterfront Park user, allegedly by a 16-year-old homeless girl; and the infamous beating of state Rep. Tom Brower, who is pursuing charges against the two teenage boys accused of assaulting and robbing him.

These incidents and others highlight how misguided it is for some well-meaning people to urge the city and state to leave the encampment alone. All that laissez-faire attitude does is empower the thugs and bullies who flourish among the diverse Kakaako homeless population, and leave the physically weaker and more peaceable homeless residents with little hope that the government will step in to help.

By allowing this camp to harden so, the city and state government are tacitly condoning the continued existence of an environment that is fueling physical and emotional harm against real people.

Some of the crime victims are homeless. Some of them are not. All of them deserve better.

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