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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 8, 2010

Take back Honolulu

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tents have been set up by homeless people throughout Kapi'olani Park.

Photos by DEBRORAH BOOKER and ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The homeless also claim many of the picnic tables and benches.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Homeless people with carts and boxes full of belongings live in Pawa'a Neighborhood Park on Beretania Street.

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Honolulu needs a new strategy for handling the homeless.

The city needs to move on several fronts, recognizing that the homeless population is anything but monolithic. No single program or policy will be enough to make progress.

New "transitional housing" shelters, such as the public-private Sea Wind project going up in Leeward O'ahu, should be a great help for the working poor who can have emergency shelter and, with help, gain enough financial stability to move into neighboring apartments.

And the forward motion of City Council bills to ban unpermitted camping and shopping-cart use in city parks also may give hope to everyone weary of the abuse of the sidewalks, restrooms and parks.

It is important to recognize the distinction among three groups: the working poor who can't afford shelter and want to get off the streets, the mentally ill and addicted, and the park campers who seem to relish playing cat-and-mouse with the police and befuddled city officials.

This last group has essentially laid claim to dozens of city parks, surrounding public restrooms with their carts, bikes, boxes and trash and taking over tables, benches and picnic areas in some of the most beautiful beachfront areas of Waikīkī.

Action by the police and parks workers is sporadic and ineffective. We're still not clear why it's permissible for people to stack and store personal belongings on public property for weeks, sometimes months, and why being in possession of a shopping cart from Safeway or Longs doesn't constitute receiving stolen property.

Do we really need further refinement of laws to take action?

It's too bad it's come to this, but too much is at stake to allow the city, and especially Waikīkī, to turn into a tattered squatters' village.

The city, with assistance from state or nonprofit agencies, needs to establish an enforcement squad to go into the parks every day and nudge the homeless to get moving. If that means confiscating stolen shopping carts, running warrant checks and writing citations, so be it.

This squad would also include social workers and other professionals who could help assess individual needs and suggest alternatives.

This may seem extreme but there isn't any other way to give direction to people who need it and deter the more opportunistic types who take advantage of lax law enforcement. Including social service on these sweeps should help police officers, who shouldn't be expected to resolve legitimate problems homeless people have.

Simply, the city needs to remove the option of camping out on public property.

It's a shame that a proposal to locate a shelter near River Street, specifically geared for the chronically homeless, has run into opposition from the Chinatown neighborhood. This is the kind of program that has encountered success in other cities.

Not that other approaches haven't been tried. Emergency solutions such as "tent cities" legal camps for the homeless may seem a pragmatic answer in lean times, but to do it right takes money up front, for security and sanitation, among other concerns. Otherwise, say housing advocates, these camps can create havens for drugs, crime and disease.

An unofficial encampment of this kind has grown near Kea'au Park in Wai'anae. Just ask the armies of volunteers who finally cleared the wall of trash from the roadside there. It isn't pretty.

It would be a mistake to simply assume that homelessness will abate as the economy improves. In fact, illegal camping was already spreading as a huge problem in Ala Moana Beach Park and Kapi'olani Park in 2005 as the economy was booming.

Back then, the explanation was that rental housing was too expensive. Now, it's supposedly because there are too few jobs.

Homelessness has spread because we've allowed it to.

Honolulu needs to take back its parks and public spaces, without apology and without delay.