In the spring of 2006, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann ordered police to clear about 200 homeless people from Ala Moana Park.

Many of the them marched in unison to Honolulu Hale, where they were permitted to protest and to set up lawn chairs, mats, sleeping bags and tents for a spell.

Hannemann then made available the grassy area above the Honolulu Police Department garage on Beretania Street for anyone needing temporary emergency shelter daily from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m.

Call it an experiment of sorts in safe zones for the homeless.

Capitol view today. 5 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Hawaii State Capitol is home to expansive lawns that are nearly always empty. Why not use the space for a safe zone for homeless people?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu is again discussing the idea of safe zones, and so are other counties and state officials. And that’s a good thing. Despite some progress, homelessness remains a chronic problem that demands bold innovation.

City Councilman Ernie Martin has introduced a resolution urging the city to designate safe zones — places to allow homeless people to erect a tent “without fear of eviction” and provide access to restroom facilities, social services and security.

Opposition has been vocal, with the main contention being that it is merely a short-term fix. But Martin counters with the sobering fact that the homeless population on Oahu has increased every year since 2009, and that we are sheltering nearly 500 fewer people then we were just four years ago.

“After seven emergency proclamations and two years of talk about how hard we are working on homelessness, the results so far are unacceptable,” he said in a Civil Beat Community Voices commentary.

Stop Shuffling The Homeless

State Sen. Will Espero is part of a working group that is studying safe zones and identifying state land in urban areas that could be used for such purposes. The group was established by legislation approved in the 2017 Hawaii Legislature, with the goal to report back to lawmakers in January.

The report is expected to include details such as cost estimates, the types of facilities for dwelling units and strategies to transition the safe zone inhabitants to permanent housing. Recommendations could come in the form of specific legislation.

Honolulu Hale view1. 1 june 2016.

There is also plenty of green space around Honolulu Hale that could be used as a safe zone. The mayor, the Council and passersby would then be reminded daily of the persistence of the homeless crisis — and how we can help.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Hawaii Island, Mayor Harry Kim is moving toward establishing several encampments around the island. An interim facility, Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona, features portable toilets, a shower and canopy tents.

The same criticism — that camps or safe zones won’t lead to permanent housing — have been leveled at Kim’s administration. But the mayor rightly responds, “We’re not going to clean up a park to get the homeless out and all we do is shuffle them someplace else.”

Shuffling them to “someplace else” is precisely what has been happening, especially on Oahu since city officials first enacted sit-lie restrictions for sidewalks in Waikiki three years ago. Other regions soon followed.

The Truth About Sit-Lie

Martin and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi are now pushing to expand sit-lie to include bans near schools or libraries, along Pacific Street in Iwilei and in front of all business, and on all public sidewalks islandwide.

While it has its advantages, sit-lie is not the solution.

Will Caron of the Young Progressives Demanding Action has it correct in his testimony on the bills: “Not only does it demonstrate a callousness toward the most vulnerable among us, it will only swell our already overcrowded jail system with nonviolent offenders who cannot afford to make bail and who must be housed and fed on the taxpayers’ dime.”

After seven emergency proclamations and two years of talk about how hard we are working on homelessness, the results so far are unacceptable. — Councilman Ernie Martin

But nor should we allow homeless people to camp indefinitely wherever they please.

The estimated half-million dollars in hazardous damage by campers at Kakaako Waterfront Park has led to a second closure of the park. Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation will be closing part of Moanalua Stream  to clear homeless from the Nimitz H-1 viaduct area.

There will obstacles to setting up safe zones.

In the same session that lawmakers approved a plan to study setting up puuhonua (it means place of refuge or asylum, or a place of peace and safety), it shelved a measure requiring the governor, with the help of state funds, to establish puuhonua safe zones “where homeless persons may reside.”

There are also some homeless people, many of them mentally ill, who simply refuse help.

But a longtime homeless encampment at the Waianae Boat Harbor was cited just last week as a model that could be emulated elsewhere.

Recent history reminds us of how persistent the homeless crisis remains.

Just two months after Hannemann evicted people from Ala Moana, Gov. Linda Lingle opened the Next Step shelter in a warehouse in Kakaako. At the time, Lingle criticized the Hannemann administration, “saying they had not done enough to help homeless people after the closure of Ala Moana Beach Park.”

But she also didn’t expect Next Step to be permanent.

Eleven years later, the shelter and the reality that homeless is a shared responsibility are with us still. Let’s give safe zones a try.

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