Hawaii County officials broke down a collection of tents, tarps and cots known as Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona Tuesday due to safety concerns.

Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim set up the camp last August under an emergency proclamation when the county cleared 68 people from an illegal homeless camp at Old Kona Airport Park.

The proclamation waived building and fire codes but has since expired.

When heavy winds and rain hit the Big Island’s west side, the homeless people living at Camp Kikaha used wood pallets to protect themselves, which created a fire hazard. Three large canopies used for shade were also flammable.

“The wind would lift up the tents and we’re worried about the safety of our campers,” said Lance Niimi, an executive assistant to the mayor.

Kona homeless temporary camp Camp Kikaha wide.
County officials created Camp Kikaha in August as a temporary place for homeless to live. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

County officials built the camp as a temporary facility and encouraged people to move to homeless shelters or find permanent housing.

About 20 adults lived in the camp when it closed, many were placed in a nearby homeless shelter operated by Hope Services Hawaii or in housing programs run by the county, according to county managing director Wil Okabe.

Three people chose not to enter the shelters.  

Camp Kikaha, referred to by some as a “safe zone” and others as a “shelter without walls,” offered state and county officials a testing ground for legal homeless camps.

It cost just $2,000 to set up but at one point ran a monthly tab of more than $23,000, or $766 per person, when 30 people lived in the camp. The operating cost dropped when the county could no longer afford 24-hour security.

The monthly cost also covered portable toilets, spigots and showers.

Kona Brewing Company’s flagship brewery and restaurant is located next to the camp along Pawai Place in an industrial part of Kona.

In testimony in support of a state bill that would create homeless villages, Mary Rait, Kona Brewing’s director of government relations, said the camp made the area unsafe.

“We routinely have homeless people harassing our staff and guests,” she wrote. “We have witnessed some of mentally ill individuals jump into the road in front of cars or throw things at cars passing by.”

The company instituted a buddy system for staff walking to and from the restaurant at night.

Mayor Kim is interested in using a 5-acre parcel just outside of industrial Kona called Village 9 for a homeless shelter that will accommodate up to 100 people.

The County of Hawaii displayed a fiberglass dome near Village 9, the site of a proposed safe zone, in October 2017. County of Hawaii

In December the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness granted Hawaii County $25,000 in state funds to continue operating Camp Kikaha.

The county will instead use the money build a shelter with code-compliant structures. The state has yet to release the funds to the county, Niimi said.  

Niimi, who worked for almost 40 years as a social worker, is lobbying the Legislature for funds to start homeless villages with shelters.

He has his eye on domes that look like igloos being used for a homeless shelter by a church in Kaneohe on Oahu.

The state budget in its current draft includes $30 million for homeless villages referred to as “ohana zones” across the state, including $5 million for Hawaii County.

“We want to be a test site for ohana zones,” Niimi said. 

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