As the upcoming legislative session looms, a number of lawmakers say they plan to introduce bills that would create legal homeless encampments, otherwise known as “safe zones.”

Supporters envision the camps as stepping stones to permanent housing.

“A safe zone will be a place of refuge with services and providers, and transitions to permanent housing,” said state Rep. Cedric Gates.

It’s a chance, he added, to “use the minimal amount of money to get the most bang for our buck.”

New Representative Cedric Asuega Gates during FIN mtg. Capitol. 10 jan 2017
Rep. Cedric Gates suggested placing a legal homeless encampment in every Honolulu City Council district. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The safe zone concept is to provide living conditions closest to what many homeless people are already experiencing, in a legal setting where the residents might more readily receive services. Residents of  typical Hawaii homeless camps face the possibility of eviction by authorities.

Gates introduced a bill last year to create safe zones but it was amended to instead create a working group that studied the idea. Gates said he plans to introduce a similar measure this session.   

State Sen. Josh Green plans to introduce a companion bill.

Any bills related to safe zones would need to pass the Senate Human Services Committee, where Green is the chairman.

His counterpart in the House, Health and Human Services Chairman Rep. John Mizuno, is also enthusiastic about the concept and plans to introduce his own measure.

The term “safe zones” has bad connotations, Mizuno said,  so his bill would characterize the legal encampments as “Aloha Transitional Zones,” or something along those lines.

“People who oppose the idea think of it as a free-for-all,”  Mizuno said. “Like the wild, wild West with no protection and security.”

Mizino’s vision for safe zones includes locker spaces and transportation, as well as caseworkers and nurses to provide services for the residents. 

“It’s kind of a variation of a shelter,” said state Rep. Sylvia Luke, whose ideas for safe zones are similar to Mizuno’s.

‘Not Necessarily Any Cheaper’

It’s not clear if safe zones would be more cost-effective than traditional shelters or more effective at lessening Hawaii’s homeless crisis.

Camp Kikaha, a collection of tents near a homeless shelter in Kona, is considered the only existing safe zone in the state. Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim spent $4,000 to create the encampment in August. 

By October, 22 people lived in the camp, which cost the county about $963 per person each month to run.

Hale Kikaha resident Kamehameha interviewed on his cot that he sleeps on under tarp/tent. Kailua Kona, Hawaii.
Camp Kikaha resident Kamehameha Kane said in September he preferred living in the safe zone to Kona’s old airport park where “it was hot, harsh and it wasn’t organized.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s not necessarily any cheaper than other strategies to end homelessness, so it’s really important to think about what our end goal is,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s homeless coordinator.

Since it opened, two people moved from Camp Kikaha to permanent housing and eight moved to an emergency homeless shelter. Two more are slated to get housing.

Morishige pointed to the success of the state’s Housing First program, which housed 241 people from May to December 2017. The program includes services to ensure people stay in their homes. 

About 97 percent of Housing First participants have remained in permanent housing since the program began in Hawaii in 2014. 

“A safe zone will be a place of refuge with services and providers, and transitions to permanent housing.” — Rep. Cedric Gates

The program costs from $16,000 to $17,000 per person annually, according to Morishige. 

“For not substantially more you’re offering permanent (housing),” Morishige told Civil Beat in October. 

Not all safe zones are as expensive as Camp Kikaha. Opportunity Village in Oregon costs from $107 to $125 per person each month and the monthly cost of Camp Hope in New Mexico is just $13 per person.

The services and security envisioned by safe zone advocates in the Hawaii Legislature would be costly, so support from budget committee chairs would be key in turning their ideas into reality.

Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said she supports the idea.

But Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is hesitant.  He said the state should focus on developing housing, especially on state land along the Honolulu rail route.

“I don’t want the short-term solution to delay some of the more long-term solutions,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily opposed to it. I just don’t want it to be a distraction.”

Dela Cruz added that safe zones won’t be possible without support from the community surrounding the area designated for the encampment.

Not In My Backyard

In a report to the Legislature, the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homeless identified nine state-owned parcels on Oahu that could be used for safe zones.

A small parcel next to the Kaimuki fire station is on the list.

Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents east Honolulu, introduced a resolution this month that opposes designating the area as a safe zone.

The resolution explains that the encampment might disturb nearby residents.

When the interagency council met in October to discuss safe zones, an aid for Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents Kalihi, said he opposes any legal encampments in his district.

Gates said the state should consider leasing private land and suggested placing an encampment in every Honolulu City Council district.

“I really want it to be in different communities rather than just one community housing the whole island’s problem,” he said.

Join the conversation in-person at Civil Beat’s upcoming Civil Cafe event, “Legislative Preview 2018,” on Thursday at noon at the Capitol. For more information, visit our events page.

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