City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and at least two other Council members want to mimic Seattle-style public showers and tent cities across Oahu.
And they want them now.
Asked last week when he expects to unveil either the first so-called “hygiene center” or tent city in his district, Martin said, “Yesterday, man. I’m impatient. Very impatient.”
The concept of hygiene centers and tent cities is being endorsed by Martin and Councilmen Trevor Ozawa and Joey Manahan. Those steps would augment the city’s nascent Hale Mauliola community on state land on Sand Island, where formerly homeless clients live in converted shipping containers and get on-site social serv-ice help.
Martin, Ozawa and Manahan prefer to call the tent cities “temporary encampments,” but they do not agree on all of the details for either concept.
Manahan, for example, contends that in his district in Mapunapuna or Iwilei, it makes sense to put a hygiene center (or “urban rest stop”) in close proximity to a tent city, giving homeless people coordinated access to social service agencies. Martin, however, is reluctant to pair them.
“I don’t want to develop a ghetto,” Martin said.
But all three Council members are in favor of hygiene centers and tent cities after seeing them during separate visits last year to Seattle. Like Honolulu, expensive and tourist-friendly Seattle is struggling to deal with its own homeless problem.
“I was very impressed with what I saw,” Manahan said.
Like Martin and Ozawa, Manahan has criticized the city’s only version of a homeless hygiene center. On North Pauahi Street it’s next to the city’s Pauahi Hale low-income housing complex that was renovated last year at a cost of $120,000.
They say it’s too small, dark, dirty and uninviting, and does not provide the social service help that homeless people need to successfully move off the street.
Honolulu desperately needs to build more affordable housing, Manahan said, but in the meantime, “I see hygiene centers and the temporary encampments as part of the solution.”
Federal officials discourage tent cities and say they typically are promised as “temporary” only to become permanent.
They specifically cite Seattle, which this year saw its homeless population jump by 19 percent from last year.
Jennifer Leimaile Ho — the Washington, D.C.-based senior adviser on housing and services for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (and niece of the late entertainer Don Ho) — told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in February:
“We can’t think of a single community where a tent city was a critical part of their success. It is a distraction of effort. You’re thinking you’re doing something that’s temporary, and it ends up being permanent. It’s not a solution. Band-Aids don’t work.”
Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said in an email, “We don’t believe that such approaches create real progress toward ending people’s homelessness or solving the challenges communities face. Instead, these approaches can distract a disproportionate share of communities’ time, effort, and resources away from the solutions we all need to focus on: providing better and greater access to permanent housing opportunities that are matched with the right level of services to be successful. At the same time, however, efforts focused on sweeping or clearing encampments or tent cities don’t create real, lasting solutions either, and make it harder to provide people with the help they need and deserve.”
But Sharon Lee of the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute, which runs three of Seattle’s tent cities, said, “Frankly, the Interagency Council is behind the times and is old school. Homelessness has increased during their time, so I can’t say they’re effective.”
Martin’s office spent $2,500 to bring out Lee in February and plans to fly her back to consult on how best to build Oahu’s own version of government-sanctioned tent cities and showers for homeless people.
Two of the tent cities that Lee’s group runs are on city land, and the third is on private land. They use a mix of camping tents and 8-by-12-foot “tiny houses” that include heat and electricity.
The locations are supposed to rotate every few years, and private landowners get tax breaks, a concept that Martin likes as an incentive to find appropriate sites on Oahu.
But instead of building a $1.5 million shower facility complete with toilets, sinks, washers and dryers, and social service workers, as Lee’s group has done in Seattle, Martin prefers to renovate underused city property, such as the ground floor of Chinatown’s Gateway Plaza or the Hauula Civic Center, which would presumably lower costs, although Martin had no dollar estimates.
“Conceptually there’s some really positive things about it,” said Dotty Kelly Paddock, vice president of the Hauula Community Association, which uses the civic center. “Homeless people use the restrooms at the civic center, and they thank me because they at last have a place to clean up and use the toilet. There could be some merit to this idea. “
Dee Dee Letts, a member of the Koolauloa Neighborhood Board, said, “The concept is good. The devil’s in the details and the implementation. We don’t need to create more problems than we’re trying to solve.”
Ozawa wants to divert $900,000 from the Waikiki King’s Village development project “community benefits package” to provide one or more urban rest stops in the Waikiki portion of his district.
Martin wants each Council member to be allocated $2 million to develop ideas that make sense for each of the nine Council districts. He calls tent cities and hygiene centers “high-priority ticket items,” and plans to be the first to open one in his district, which includes Mililani Mauka, Wahiawa, Mokuleia, Waialua, Haleiwa, Pupukea, Sunset Beach, Kahuku, Laie, Hauula, Punaluu, Kahana, Kaaawa, Kualoa, Waiahole and Kahaluu.
“I like to lead by example,” Martin said. “I want to show them the way. It’s the best way. … We’re dealing with our own, our neighbors, our neighbors’ children. Most people realize that the problem already exists. It’s easier for us to deal with them proactively than reactively. If we don’t provide facilities for the basic necessities for life, we can look at public restrooms continuing to be in less than usable shape.”
In August, 81 percent of people surveyed in the Hawaii Poll said they were in favor of providing shelter and basic needs to homeless people on Sand Island “and similar areas.”
The poll also found that 62 percent of respondents would even support a temporary shelter in their own neighborhood.
Each Council district interested in a tent city or hygiene shelter should decide what’s appropriate, Martin said.
For instance, he said, Waikiki would likely welcome a hygiene center — intended to keep urine and feces off sidewalks while allowing people to shower, wash clothes and get social service help.
But Martin said that Waikiki tourists and businesses might not be as accepting of a city-sanctioned tent city, which he imagines would rely on 120-square-foot “tiny houses” to comply with permitting issues.
Louis Erteschik, vice chairman of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, agreed with Martin’s assessment.
“You hear people complaining all the time, ‘They’re peeing on the beach. They’re doing this and that,’” Erteschik said. “If they don’t have some place to do it, then what do you expect? The concept makes sense to give people a place to clean up.”
At the same time, Erteschik said, “speaking for myself, I’m reluctant to say a tent city is a good idea for Waikiki. If you put up a tent city or a bunch of small houses, it’s not great for tourism. I’d be leery of endorsing it without hearing more details.”
Ozawa embraces the idea of both hygiene centers and tent cities for his district, which runs from East Honolulu through parts of Kapahulu, Diamond Head, Black Point, Waikiki and Ala Moana Beach Park.
“I’d rather have them all in one area with their tents rather than all over with their tents,” Ozawa said. “We decide where these encampments are, not the other way around. My goal is to have something up and running as soon as possible. It can be done in a few months.”
Ozawa added, “The goal is to decrease the number of people who are homeless, and that’s something that’s better for everybody.”