A growing number of state and county officials are talking about safe zones, designated areas where homeless people could camp legally.

On Thursday, a longtime homeless encampment at the Waianae Boat Harbor was cited as a model that could be emulated elsewhere, and the state released the locations of three possible sites on Oahu.

Public testimony was taken at a meeting of a working group of officials tasked by the Legislature with studying safe zones and identifying state land in the urban core that could be used as safe zones. The five-member group will report back to the Legislature.

“The policy now is just pushing people from neighborhood to neighborhood,” testified Sen. Will Espero. “That is a rather asinine idea to be doing, and we need safe zones so that these individuals have a place to go”

Chair Hawaii Interangency Council on Homelessness Chair Scott Morishige at 1390 Miller street.
Scott Morishige, chair of the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Daniel Kaneshiro, left, are two of the five members of the state’s working group on safe zones. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu City Councilman Ernie Martin supports safe zones on Oahu, and Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has already created one in Kailua-Kona.

In 2012, legislators created a similar working group, which advised against creating safe zones, citing concerns that money spent on them would be better spent helping people find permanent housing.

On Thursday, state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige presented three parcels of state land that could potentially be used for safe zones. However, he said all three sites have issues that could render them unfit.

For example, biohazard remediation would make a parcel of industrial land near Keehi Lagoon mauka of the H-1 freeway dangerous for habitation.

Other sites included a parcel near Kalihi-Waena Neighborhood Park in Kalihi and an area in Kakaako near Mother Waldron Neighborhood Park.  

An aid for Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents Kalihi, said Manahan opposes placing a safe zone in his district.

Marc Paaluhi of Waianae said Oahu in essence already has a safe zone. He and others at the meeting said the state should model safe zones after the Waianae Boat Harbor encampment where about 170 people live.

What we have now is the perfect template,” he said.

Marc Paaluhi speaks during public testimony during Hawaii Interangency Council on Homelessness.
Marc Paaluhi said the Waianae Boat Harbor encampment could serve as a model for future safe zones. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state didn’t create or authorize the encampment, so it is technically not a safe zone, Morishige said.

A community of predominantly Native Hawaiian people formed the Waianae encampment. Twinkle Borge is the camp’s de facto mayor. She and 11 other residents lead monthly community meetings and maintain order.

There’s a sense of  shared responsibility at the camp, Paaluhi said.

National organizations that study safe zones say they work better if their residents practice self governance, creating their own leadership structure and rules.

If a local government legalizes an encampment, authority shouldn’t shift from homeless residents to county officials, said Eric Tars, an attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in a telephone interview.

“It becomes more of a service provider-client relationship,” he said.

Local governments also benefit if an organically developed homeless encampment practices self governance because officials don’t need to spend resources to manage the camp, Tars said.

Hawaii Interangency Council on Homelessness meeting, Twinkle Borge from the Waianae boat harbor adds some testimony.
Twinkle Borge, the leader of the homeless encampment at the Waianae Boat Harbor, explained how it works. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The law enforcement presence there should be at the invitation and on the terms of the people there who want it as opposed to an enforcement security force,” he said.

No one at the meeting testified against the creation of safe zones, but Morishige noted the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness opposes them.

One concern is that safe zones will become a permanent option rather than a stepping-stone to permanent housing. Borge explained at the meeting that she works to connect people with social services.

“My thing is helping them get to the next level,” she said. “It’s not easy to bring people off the street into homes.”

Ensuring safe zones are a transitional option for homeless people is essential, Katy Miller, a regional coordinator the the Interagency Council on Homelessness, said in an interview. The zones should offer a stepping-stone to permanent housing, which requires local governments to invest in affordable housing, she said.

“Do you really see this as a temporary solution? … Is there a clear pipeline of affordable housing?” she said in a phone interview. “Because it will become permanent without a clear pathway out.”

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