The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources voted 5-1 on Friday to approve a city petition to lease about 5 acres of state land to the city rent free for a temporary homeless encampment on Sand Island. 

“I think we all want to see something done that helps the situation for the homeless here,” said board member Chris Yuen.

Vernon Char was the only member to oppose the petition, arguing that the city hadn’t done its due diligence on the site. Board member Ulalia Woodside was not at the meeting.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration hopes to relocate about 100 homeless people, many of whom are hanging out in the island’s main tourist mecca of Waikiki, to the site while  the city develops long-term housing options. The parcel, located in a heavily industrial area, would include portable restrooms, showers, security, shuttle service to bus hubs and support services. 

Sand Island site where City and County of Honolulu is proposing Housing First Transition Center. September 9, 2104.

Sand Island site where the city is proposing its homeless center.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The city’s lease is for three years, but city officials say they hope to move homeless people into housing as soon as housing units become available so they they don’t plan to need the site longer than two years. 

In approving the petition, the land board added a number of conditions put forward by Yuen. The state Department of Health has to approve the site, which could have contamination problems. If the city tries to extend the lease beyond three years, it will have to conduct an environmental assessment of the land, which it is currently exempt from. And the city will bear full responsibility for security. 

Several people who showed up to testify on the measure, including community activist Kathryn Xian, signaled their intent to challenge the ruling through an administrative process set forth by the land board. However, Yuen noted that the request for a contested case would likely be rejected because the attorney general’s office has consistently advised that such challenges do not extend to lease requests. 

Xian told Civil Beat after the hearing that she is still considering challenging the decision on the basis that the city and state should require an environmental assessment be conducted on the property first. 

The land board approval came after three hours of testimony from city officials and members of the public who had shown up to oppose the project.

Board Chair William Aila tried to keep public testimony focused but testimony veered off in many directions, covering such topics as Hawaiian sovereignty, the history of the military on Oahu and issues of free speech. 

The more pointed opposition focused on concerns that the site may be contaminated with chemicals such as lead, dieldrin and arsenic left over from the area’s decades of past use as an ash and solid waste dump. State health department documents indicate that levels of chemicals in the area have exceeded safe levels and a more thorough evaluation is needed to gauge whether the land is safe for human occupation. 

Larry Geller, who runs the news blog, Disappeared News, testified that the city’s petition, was misleading.

“What they have presented to you on paper is a triage center,” he said. “What they have presented to you is actuality is a tent city.”

The city’s petition to the land board describes the site as a “temporary triage for services and housing.”

The site has also been criticized for being hot, dusty and relatively isolated.

Despite the site’s shortcomings, Aila noted that there are already many homeless living on Sand Island. 

“It’s already happening, why wouldn’t you want to bring some sort of systematic control to the area?” he asked the project’s critics. “The status quo right now is not safe for anybody.”

After the hearing, the city’s managing director, Ember Shinn, said that the next step for the city is to work with the health department to make sure that the soil is safe. 

“We’re relatively optimistic that we can deal with all the soil issues,” she said. “But if we can’t, then the mayor has been very clear that if it is not safe then we are not going to go there.”

The city intends to pave over an acre of the site with asphalt to protect homeless who are sleeping on the ground in tents from contact with potentially contaminated soil. 

Shinn acknowledged that the asphalt solution isn’t ideal. “It’s hot, it does absorb heat,” she noted.

But other options, such as gravel and crushed coral, don’t provide a flat surface for tents, she said. The city is evaluating other materials that could be placed over the asphalt to make it more comfortable. 

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