With the international spotlight on Honolulu for the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, the idea of creating “safe zones” for homeless people has become popular among some state lawmakers.

Without them, they’re worried that law enforcement will “sweep” homeless from areas like Waikiki, where most APEC meetings will take place in November.

On Thursday, however, lawmakers were told by the state’s homelessness czar and others that safe zones — temporary shelters with amenities like running water — are not an effective way to address homelessness.

As well, Rep. John Mizuno, chair of House Human Services, said he now believes there will be no roundup of homeless people.


In dismissing the idea of safe zones, Marc Alexander, Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s homelessness coordinator, said the only “formula that really works” for ending homelessness involves affordable housing, permanent housing and job development.

Alexander pointed to Seattle, which he recently visited, as a city that he said has a “laissez-faire” approach to safe zones — or “tent cities,” as he called them.

“They did not put government money toward that,” he said, adding that Seattle officials also believe safe zones are not a longterm solution to homelessness.

Alexander’s disregard for safe zones, however, didn’t sit well with advocates like Mizuno and Reps. Rida Cabanilla and Tom Brower.

Brower, whose district includes Waikiki — home to some 200 homeless people — posed a question to Alexander, the former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese.

“What would Jesus do?” Brower asked. “I think he would want to provide some space somewhere.”

Alexander answered by saying that a major problem with safe zones is that they come with rules and regulations that some homeless people reject.

“Quite frankly, they don’t want to go to a shelter — they want some sort of permanent housing,” he said.

“But why not some land?” Brower continued. “Why is the state reluctant to provide some space for people to camp — the same people camping everywhere now?”

Alexander stuck to his position, saying he is convinced that the longterm approach will end homelessness in Hawaii in 10 years. Using limited government services and land does not “respect the dignity of the person,” he argued.

No Sweeps of Homeless

But Brower wasn’t buying the “respect the dignity” argument.

He pointed to the recent example involving a homeless woman who had virtually taken over a bus stop on Kapiolani Boulevard.

Urinating and defecating at bus stops hardly gives one dignity, he told Alexander.

“She says she hasn’t had a shower in 10 years,” Brower said. “In natural disasters the government provides shelter. Why not during economic disasters?”

Brower then expressed his fear that the APEC conference would lead to law enforcement sweeps of beaches and parks. The question was posed as well by Rep. Karen Awana.

Bridget Holthus, deputy director of the City’s Department of Community Services, responded by saying that the city routinely cleans public facilities but said she did not know of any specific plans centered around APEC.

“I would imagine that we want the island and city looking good (for APEC), but cleanups are a normal things … we do that year-round,” she said.

After the briefing, Mizuno issued a press release stating that he and other lawmakers had “obtained a commitment” from the governor’s office and mayor’s office “that no ‘sweep’ or ’roundup’ of the homeless in Waikiki will occur prior to or during APEC.”

NIMBY Issues Remain

Even if legislators were able to obtain support for safe zones, funding for them remains a challenge. So does where, exactly, to put them.

As Mufi Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor, told Mizuno and company, not-in-my-backyard worries stopped the city from starting a Housing First project in Chinatown.

“We saw it worked in Seattle, and we had $10 million set aside,” said Hannemann, who now heads the Hawaii Hotels & Lodging Association. “But, at the end of day, the community was very much against it and (Peter) Carlisle campaigned against it.”

Hannemann continued: “I think safe zones will face same challenges … there is no silver bullet, no one solution.”

Cabanilla asked Hannemann about the possibility of putting Waikiki homeless people in Waikiki hotel rooms.

Hannemann demurred, saying, “We would want to see a proposal. … We would need community support.”

The idea, he seemed to suggest, was a tough sell.

Kent Anderson of the Catholic Diocese had a similarly mild response when Cabanilla asked about church properties that could be converted into safe zones.

“We are open to discussion, but there are some needs we would need to see,” he said, pointing to sanitation and security. “There are potential liability issues.”

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