Oahu’s homeless may have a new housing option — tents on Sand Island. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration has been working to procure a parcel of land on the small island off of Honolulu Harbor as a temporary housing solution for the street homeless population. 

The Sand Island site, which could be operational in three months, would include tents, restroom facilities, shuttle service, storage areas and security, Ember Shinn, the mayor’s managing director, told the Honolulu City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee on Thursday. The area would be open to individuals, families and their pets.

Sand Island

Sand Island may soon be part of the solution to Honolulu’s homeless problem.


Shinn stressed that the area would not become a “tent city,” and that the homeless would be provided with a range of health and counseling services.

 “The purpose is to shift people form the streets to temporary housing first to make them ready to move into permanent supportive housing,” Shinn told council members.

Shinn’s comments came during a five-hour hearing on controversial bills that would ban sitting and lying on sidewalks and urinating and defecating in public.

Last month, council members deferred the measures, including two bills introduced by Caldwell that apply the bans to Waikiki, citing concerns about a lack of shelter space and housing for the homeless.  The bills are aimed at prodding the homeless off the streets, but critics said that the homeless didn’t have viable shelter options.

Shinn’s announcement about the proposed Sand Island homeless facility helped the bills pass on Thursday — they will now go to the full City Council for deliberation.

Shinn said that the Sand Island facility would provide a temporary solution for housing the homeless while the administration embarks on an aggressive effort to acquire or lease permanent housing, buoyed by $47 million in funding.

The Sand Island facility is only expected to stay open for 12 to 18 months, said Shinn.

Neither Shinn nor Caldwell would say where exactly the site on Sand Island is — the city is currently in negotiations with the state for use of the property, which could be secured in two to three weeks.

Councilman Breene Harimoto expressed skepticism about whether the street homeless, many of whom suffer from mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction, would move to the site.

Shinn said the administration was hopeful.

“It is making it available as a resource for them,” she said. “I think studies have shown that people don’t necessarily choose to be homeless, circumstances force them. If they had a choice, they would want to be sheltered in some safe environment.”

Shinn said the site would not turn away individuals with drug or alcohol problems.

“We are not going to encourage illegal drug use,” she said. “Illegal drug use will still be discouraged. But it’s not an environment where we are going to be bringing in the police to make arrests.”

The only people not allowed in would be those convicted of a violent crime in the past two years and undocumented immigrants.

Sand Island was known as Quarantine Island in the 19th century because it quarantined ships believed to carry passengers with contagious diseases. During World War II it was used as an internment camp for Japanese. In recent years, the state had made efforts to clean up the industrialized area and the island’s recreational park, which is open to shoreline camping.

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