Hawaii’s only government-sanctioned “safe zone” — Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona that grew out of a crisis in August — quickly burned through Hawaii County’s homeless budget while state officials continue to decide whether the approach to reducing homelessness should be part of an overall strategy.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development insist that government-sanctioned tent cities — rebranded in Hawaii as safe zones — don’t work.
The USICH says communities typically promise that so-called pop-up shelters will be only temporary, but rarely are. At the same time, communities spend time arguing over where to put them instead of focusing on providing permanent housing.
“While it’s important to provide a place for people to be safe and stable, we have to create these pathways out of homelessness,” said Katy Miller, the Seattle-based regional coordinator for USICH. “Spending all of our energy on safe zones can be a distraction from the real work of finding housing.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, is well aware of the criticisms of safe zones. So the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness on Monday is scheduled to consider providing $25,000 to Hawaii County to see if Camp Kikaha will actually lead homeless people into permanent housing, Morishige said.
The state especially wants to prevent a repeat of the disastrous 1990-1993 tent city experiment in Oahu’s Aala Park that ended in failure after a night of “wilding” that included an attempted murder and a trail of crime scenes.
“Safe zones have previously been tried here locally and there’s been concerns about health and safety,” Morishige said. “There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue.”
In August, Hawaii County officials swept 68 homeless people from an entrenched encampment at the Old Kona Airport, where there were persistent complaints of drug use and violence.
With no place to put them, Camp Kikaha was born at the Old Kona Industrial Area about a mile from the Old Kona Airport.
It’s in an area that already includes a homeless shelter and longer-term “micro-units” built out of shipping containers. Clients also receive homeless-related assistance.
“It was to be transitional, temporary, until we can find something more appropriate,” said Lance Niimi, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim and the county’s point person on homelessness. “Nobody wanted it there, but we had no choice. We had to make it work.”
Some 25 to 30 residents sleep on cots that sit on wooden pallets over a concrete slab to prevent rainwater from ponding. They’re covered by open-air canopies.
Fire officials recommended using flame-retardant canopies, “but we don’t have that right now,” Niimi said.
Camp Kikaha originally cost Hawaii County $21,207 per month — or $706 to $848 per month per resident, Morishige said.
The person originally hired to run Camp Kikaha on a salary of about $50,000 per year is now doing the same work as an unpaid volunteer, Niimi said.
At first, Camp Kikaha came with 24-hour security — at a cost of $15,400 per month. But the county has only $60,000 in its entire homeless budget, Niimi said. So security was reduced to the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the first half of November, then cut back to midnight to 4 a.m. for the rest of November.
“As of Dec. 1 we have no security,” Niimi said. “Now we ask the residents to do four hours of (unpaid) camp monitoring. There’s no security costs now.”
With no paid staff and with volunteers enforcing rules, Camp Kikaha now likely costs Hawaii County $2,500 per month for food and portable toilets, Morishige said.
The residents have elected five council members to lead them. Eight people who were “heavy substance abusers and mental health guys” repeatedly caused difficulties, “so we asked them to leave,” Niimi said.
Asked where they went, Niimi said, “Some place outside, in Kona.”
In September 2015, residents of Seattle’s government-sanctioned tent cities told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they also quickly kick out residents who don’t follow the rules.
Asked where they go, resident leaders of Seattle’s Nickelsville homeless camp pointed to an outlaw encampment in direct sight across the Interstate 5 freeway called “The Jungle.”
Four months later, two people were killed and three others were wounded during a shooting at The Jungle.
Niimi called the Camp Kikaha experiment “a roller coaster.”
“Everybody wants a solution yesterday, but we’re doing the best we can,” he said. “The ideal is to have permanent supportive housing. The reality is that we don’t have the inventory to do that right away. To the guys that say temporary shelters end up being permanent, the question is: Where are they going to go if you don’t have enough emergency shelters? We’ve got to have an alternative.”