Hawaii legislators considering 'safe zones' for homeless
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
As the state struggles to address homelessness amid a growing budget deficit, lawmakers are supporting what they say is a low-cost, out-of-the-box solution that would create designated "safe zones" for the homeless to set up tents.
No money or land have been set aside for the zones, and the idea faces strong opposition.
Russ Saito, state comptroller and the governor's special adviser on homelessness, said the state would not support the creation of safe zones on state land "because of our concern for health and safety and the cost to manage and control such zones, which, unfortunately, we have no funds for."
But proponents say the safe zones wouldn't require much in the way of planning and start-up costs and could be one way to help address homelessness at a time when spending for new programs has all but stopped.
"We need to come up with innovative ways of dealing with the issues," said Utu Langi, whose nonprofit manages the state's Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako. "If they put forth such an idea and it's managed right, hey, let's go for it."
State Rep. Tom Brower, D-23rd (Waikīkī, Ala Moana), who introduced the safe zones proposal in the form of a House resolution, said the zones would also help tackle longstanding concerns about the homeless setting up in parks and beaches.
"There's not going to be a perfect and maybe there's not going to be a polite solution, but we know what we have right now," said Brower, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee.
"Right now, we're saying, you can't be here, you have to move on, but we're not providing a place for them to be."
The safe zone proposal before lawmakers is loosely modeled on similar designated areas on the Mainland, some of which have direct government support.
Brower said the safe zones could be set up on state land, but could also be formed on private land with the help of state funds.
The proposal comes as tent cities are springing up across the country with increasing frequency, said Joel John Roberts, a national expert on homelessness and chief executive officer of People Assisting the Homeless in Los Angeles.
He said tent cities that work are set up so homeless get intensive help to move into long-term housing.
Tent cities succeed "if there's a real sense of transition," he said. "If it's a destination point, it's going to fail."
Brower also said a key component of setting up the zones would be making sure people use them and not the parks.
"If government can provide the place, then governments need to provide the discipline to make sure people go there," he said.
The state has been working for years to address homelessness in the Islands, spending tens of millions of dollars on new programs and new shelters to get hundreds of families off the streets. With the budget crunch, though, no new major spending on homelessness is planned and some programs are seeing cuts just as service providers are reporting that more people are falling into homelessness.
Providers also say only a small portion of the state money that went to homelessness addressed the chronically homeless those who have been on the streets for a year or more and who make up the majority of those who set up tents in parks. Many chronically homeless people have substance abuse or mental health issues, and some won't move into shelters.
Advocates point out that though several homeless shelters on O'ahu are full and have waiting lists, others do have space.
The concerns over what appears to be a worsening homeless problem come as the city is taking more aggressive measures to open up public areas for everyone.
The City Council recently approved two bills proposed by the Hannemann administration that ban shopping carts in city parks and require permits for all tents. Those measures come on top of a host of efforts over the past four years to discourage homeless from setting up encampments in public areas, including closing city parks at night and banning "illegal camping."
The two new bills were especially aimed at tackling the homeless problem in Waikīkī, the state's No. 1 tourist destination, where residents and tourists have increasingly complained about homeless pitching tents in Kapi'olani and neighboring parks, taking over benches, and panhandling.
The Waikīkī Neighborhood Board supported the City Council bills, and also backed the safe zones proposal.
Bob Finley, Waikīkī Neighborhood Board chairman, said he likes the idea of setting aside a specific area for the homeless. But he warned that setting up a safe zone or tent city isn't as simple as opening up land and inviting the homeless to come.
"You need to provide basic services," he said. "You need to provide water, comfort stations, meal stations."
Curtis Kropar, executive director of Hawaiian Hope, a homeless service agency, also said the safe zones would need to have some infrastructure.
But he added that it wouldn't take a lot of money to set up the designated areas, and that some agencies would likely step up to provide management and infrastructure help at a low cost or with the help of government or private grants.
"We have to do something where we can say to people yes, you can lay your head to rest and nobody's going to bother you," Kropar said.
Langi, of Next Step, pointed out that the safe zone proposal isn't a new idea. And, he added, it has failed before, including in Honolulu in the 1990s, when then-Mayor Frank Fasi set up a tent city in A'ala Park. The area became a haven for drugs and crime and was shut down.
But Langi said that managed well, safe zones could work.
"There has to be rules," he said. "And they have to feel safe in there."
Meanwhile, there could be opposition to the plan from residents surrounding whatever designated areas are chosen as homeless safe zones.
A tent city proposal in Wai'anae in 2003 was quashed because of community opposition. More recently, a city plan to build an affordable housing project for chronically homeless stalled last year after Chinatown merchants and residents came out against it.
And Saito said the state wouldn't support putting a safe zone on state land. State parks, he said, are intended for "many different uses, but not as campgrounds for the homeless."
And other state properties have no infrastructure, he said, "and the health and safety issues are a show stopper."
At Kapi'olani Park recently, a handful of homeless people had mixed reactions to the safe zones proposal.
"That sounds appealing," said Jason Sampson, 31. Sampson has been homeless for about seven months, after being kicked out of a friend's apartment, and said constantly being on the move is hard.
One woman in her late 50s, who was raking leaves around her tent, said she would go to a safe zone because it would mean she could get a full night's sleep.
Under park rules, no one is allowed in Kapi'olani Park at night, so homeless people head out around midnight and return at 5 a.m.
The woman added that she wouldn't go to a homeless shelter because she's concerned they're not sanitary.
A 56-year-old homeless man who identified himself as Daniel said he was skeptical of the safe zones plan, and would still prefer a park.
"They're going to have rules like you can't leave (at night) ... and then they're going to start charging rent," he said.