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Panel widens search for homeless ‘safe-zone’ sites

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“The policy now is just pushing people from neighborhood to neighborhood … .”

Sen. Will Espero

Chairman, Senate Housing Committee

A legislative working group tasked with recommending possible sites for “safe zones” for homeless encampments on state land in Honolulu will expand its search islandwide — and potentially statewide — after ruling out a few vacant parcels in the city’s urban core.

Lawmakers earlier this year mandated that the state Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness form a working group to revisit the idea of creating government-sanctioned safe zones, where homeless people could legally camp or dwell temporarily in small structures before moving to permanent housing. The council was formed in 2011 and is made up of state department directors, federal agency representatives and community leaders who are charged with finding solutions to end homelessness.

With sidewalk sweeps and park closures displacing people living in tents, the safe zones effort aims to provide an alternative for the island’s nearly 5,000 homeless people — the highest per capita homeless rate in the nation.

Act 212, which became law without Gov. David Ige’s signature, directed the working group to consider sites on state land within urban Hono- lulu. Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, who serves on the working group, said three identified parcels — in Kakaako, Kalihi and near the Nimitz Highway viaduct — have various problems that make them impractical.

Morishige said a 2.17-acre site on Pohukaina Street in Kakaako next to Mother Waldron Park already is being primed for development as affordable apartments and an elementary school. Another nearly 1-acre parcel in Kalihi serves as an electrical easement attached to the Kalihi-Waena Neighborhood Park. And the third site, a 1.35-acre industrial lot mauka of the Nimitz viaduct, is near the city’s Keehi refuse transfer station and may contain hazardous materials.

“Because there are issues that have been identified with all three parcels, the (Department of Land and Natural Resources) has been asked to expand the search for vacant land parcels islandwide beyond just the Honolulu urban core,” Morishige said Thursday during a working group meeting. “We are also going to ask that they look potentially at parcels statewide in other counties as well.”

The safe zone concept is controversial. Supporters say legal tent cities are viable options where homeless people can live with fewer restrictions while still accessing social services. They exist in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and other areas.

Opponents argue that safe zones aren’t cost-effective and divert resources from providers of services to the homeless. The practice is discouraged by the the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless, and a previous working group of the state interagency council recommended against designating “safe facilities” in a 2012 report.

In addition to identifying potential sites, the working group is being asked to recommend target populations for safe zones, types of facilities or dwelling units that would be permitted, the estimated cost and a timeline for a pilot project.

State Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, made public comments at Thursday’s meeting in support of the effort.

“This is one of most critical issues facing our government and our generation at this time. We actually have a generation of children, families, working individuals who can’t afford to live in our state,” said Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point).

“The policy now is just pushing people from neighborhood to neighborhood, from community to community. That is not logical,” he added. “We need safe zones so that these individuals have a place to go that is safe, where they are secure, where they are not hassled, and most importantly where they can get assistance and resources.”

Espero said homeless people who were swept off of the streets caused an estimated half-million dollars in damage to facilities at Kakaako Waterfront, Gateway and Kewalo Basin parks. The state indefinitely closed the parks Sunday night after park officials said they could no longer ensure the safety of park users following a series of dog bites, fires and vandalism attributed to an estimated 180 homeless people living along the shoreline.

“Had those individuals had a safe zone to go to that would never have happened,” Espero said.

Currently there is one safe zone in the state — Camp Kikaha in Kona. The county- run encampment was set up after officials cleared the Old Kona Airport beach park of 70 homeless people earlier this year.

Seventeen people were placed in shelters or long-term housing within two weeks, while 23 others moved to Camp Kikaha, where covered cots, portable toilets and showers are available, Lance Niimi, executive assistant to Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim, said by phone during the working group meeting. Niimi said the county is spending $21,207 a month to operate the camp.

On Oahu, the city experimented with a safe zone in the early 1990s, when it created a tent city in Aala Park, but shut it down because of criminal activity.

Several testifiers at Thursday’s meeting encouraged the working group to consider converting a large camp near Waianae Boat Harbor into a safe zone by supplying running water and utilities and perhaps eventually replacing the tents with more permanent structures.

Some said the camp, known as Pu‘uhonua o Waianae (meaning refuge or sanctuary of Waianae) and home to 170 residents, already has a successful model of providing a stable living environment coupled with self-governance, where residents abide by rules and contribute to the community.

Twinkle Borge, known as the village leader, spoke in support of establishing safe zones. “I may not have the degree or the bachelor’s, but I do have the heart,” said Borge, who noted it’s mandatory for children in the camp to attend school and church.

“My thing is not staying there long term. My thing is helping them get to the next level. I wanna be able not only to help Pu‘uhonua o Waianae, but I wanna be effective for help the whole island,” she said. “I wanna be able to help those people that they’re sweeping come into our area and let me help you get to the next level.”

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