comscore Proposed ‘tent cities’ rouse debate
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Proposed ‘tent cities’ rouse debate

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    Governor David Ige talks to news media while standing near one of 216 dumpsters located under the H-1 Nimitz viaduct in an area that was recently cleared of homeless encampments, November 21.

Legislators and Gov. David Ige fundamentally disagree on whether the use of legalized homeless camps known as safe zones are an effective way of helping the state’s massive homeless population. The disconnect doesn’t bode well for the upcoming legislative session, where the issue of homelessness is sure to be a top priority.

Lawmakers, including the chairmen of the House and Senate housing committees, assert that government-sanctioned safe zones, sometimes referred to as tent cities, need to be part of the effort to eventually transition homeless individuals off the streets.

But the governor isn’t sold on the idea, and preliminary recommendations from a working group headed by the governor’s coordinator on homelessness do not include any proposals for creating safe zones on Oahu.

“I believe that’s a mistake,” said Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee. “With no safe zones, basically the administration and those in charge are saying, ‘We’re just going to continue pushing you from neighborhood to neighborhood.’

“We’ll be looking at legislation again because, to me, safe zones are part of the solution to end homelessness — a temporary part of the solution, but it’s still part of the solution to get people out of our parks, off of our sidewalks, off of the median strips,” said Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). “Safe zones do that, if we do them right.”

The governor contends resources would be better spent on affordable housing.

“The philosophy is that if we can focus on permanent housing and placing people in permanent housing, that’s the most effective use of our dollars,” Ige told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “These safe zones end up costing you almost the same amount of money per person, and so if we could focus that on just placing them into permanent housing, we would be better off.”

‘Strong opinions’


A legislative working group charged with studying how the state might implement safe zones for legalized homeless encampments is expected to report that the concept is not a viable option to address homelessness. But it has identified nine vacant state-controlled parcels as part of its analysis that it plans to recommend for public-private partnerships to instead address affordable housing needs. Each parcel has problems, including lack of infrastructure or contaminated soil.

>> Address: 675 Mapunapuna St.
>> Property Class: Industrial
>> Size: 1.35 acres
>> Issues: Possible hazardous materials

>> Address: 2721 Kilihau St.
>> Property Class: Industrial
>> Size: 0.2 acres
>> Issues: Flood zone

>> Address: Near Alahao Place
>> Property Class: Industrial
>> Size: 0.35 acres
>> Issues: No road access, along Kalihi Stream

>> Address: Koko Head Ave.
>> Property Class: Residential
>> Size: 0.126 acres
>> Issues: Residential area, small lot on incline

>> Address: 99-173 Kamehameha Highway
>> Property Class: Residential
>> Size: 0.3 acres
>> Issues: Possible medical contamination, along bike path

>> Address: 99-173 Kamehameha Highway
>> Property Class: Residential
>> Size: 0.275 acres
>> Issues: Near Aiea Beach Park, along bike path

>> Address: 58-73 Kamehameha Highway
>> Property Class: Agricultural
>> Size: 20.6 acres
>> Issues: No infrastructure, turned over to city for future park

>> Address: 58-73 Kamehameha Highway
>> Property Class: Agricultural
>> Size: 11.6 acres
>> Issues: Part of Wallace Beach Park

>> Address: 59-635 Pupukea Road
>> Property Class: Residential
>> Size: 1 acre
>> Issues: Residential area

This past legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have allowed the state to establish safe zone encampments equipped with hygiene facilities, security and social services for homeless people to reside in.

The effort was aimed at providing an alternative for the state’s nearly 5,000 homeless people — the highest per capita homeless rate among the 50 states — as the city and state have stepped up sweeps of illegal encampments on public sidewalks, in parks and along highways.

The proposed safe zone legislation was watered down to instead direct the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness to form a working group to “examine and develop recommendations” for creating safe zones. Ige allowed the bill to become law as Act 212 over the summer without his signature, citing concerns that the council previously opposed safe zones.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, serves as chairman of the working group, which conducted public meetings and accepted public testimony over the past two months. A report is due to the Legislature this month.

“What we’ve heard from the public is that there really are strong opinions, I think, on both sides of this issue,” Morishige said. “There are people who are strongly in favor of adopting legal encampments or a safe zone as a means of addressing homelessness. And there are also members of the public that have very strong concerns.”

Act 212 requires the working group to produce a list of potential sites within Honolulu’s urban core and recommend target populations for safe zones, types of facilities or dwelling units that would be permitted, and the estimated cost and a timeline for a pilot project.

Focus on housing

As the task group worked through its mandates, members found it challenging to identify vacant state-owned land with access and infrastructure, even after expanding the search islandwide. The group also concluded that encampments historically do not transition homeless individuals into permanent housing in a timely manner, and a more critical need, they believe, is for affordable housing.

“At the end of the day, the only thing that’s going to end their situation of homelessness is getting them into housing,” Morishige said. “That’s what we want to continue to focus on, is really look at what we can do to help people get into housing faster so that they can be more stable and have more of a long-term place to go.”

The governor agrees.

“The best practices and the current thinking now in homelessness is that we really should be focused on the end game, which is to place people in permanent housing,” Ige said.

Ige said that as the state has increased enforcement to keep public spaces clear of illegal campsites, his administration is actively offering services to the homeless and moving some of them directly into rental housing.

By contrast, Morishige said, data on safe zone campsites in Oregon and Washington state show residents tend to remain in encampments long-term.

“There’s no movement out. So people still remain in the situation of homelessness,” he said.

Morishige said the state’s Family Assessment Center, adjacent to Kakaako Waterfront Park, on the other hand, has a 93 percent housing-placement rate. Families have been moving out of the temporary shelter space on average 79 days from when they enter the center, which is run under contract by Catholic Charities Hawaii.

Similar results, he said, are being seen at Hale Mauliola, a transitional housing site with units made from converted shipping containers. It sits on state-owned land and is run by the Institute for Human Services and the city.

Ige and Morishige contend public-private partnerships like those two projects and the upcoming Kahauiki Village in Sand Island would be a better investment than legalizing campsites.

9 sites identified

The safe zones working group has identified nine state-controlled parcels on Oahu as part of its analysis, and plans to recommend they be considered for public-private partnerships to address affordable housing needs.

Rep. Tom Brower, chairman of the House Committee on Housing, said he’s been advocating for safe zones since 2010 and will continue pressing the issue. Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) helped draw awareness to the homeless crisis two years ago after he was attacked at a Kakaako homeless encampment.

He said he agrees that permanent housing is the preferred solution but says there is not enough inventory to house everyone.

“The fact is government has never provided enough affordable housing in the past. It likely will never be able to provide enough affordable housing in the future,” Brower said. “So we need alternative solutions.”

He added: “The homeless have pioneered mega-campsites for over 10 years now on Oahu, so we know that the homeless will go to campsites. We have a failed policy where the state and city wait until a homeless camp becomes so large that public outcry is so great it forces government to do something, which would be to do what we call sweeps. And then they don’t provide the solution that the homeless will go to, like a legal campsite.”

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