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The Legislature’s recent approval of a plan to build legal encampments for homeless people is getting mixed reviews on the Leeward Coast, where the homeless population is increasing.
Some members of the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board oppose the so-called “safe zones” and point to what they see as unhealthy living conditions at Oahu’s closest thing to an existing safe zone, the longtime homeless encampment at the Waianae Boat Harbor known as Puuhonua O Waianae.
But members of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board have generally been supportive of that encampment. One man who volunteers there said opponents should be careful what they wish for because if it were closed, its still-homeless residents would disperse throughout West Oahu communities that already have more than their share of smaller homeless encampments.
In April, state lawmakers approved plans to appropriate $30 million to design, construct and service six “safe zones” on public land to provide temporary dwelling spaces and support services for homeless people.
Three would be on Oahu and one each on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, according to Senate Bill 2401, which is awaiting Gov. David Ige’s signature.
But some residents say lawmakers seem to be unaware of what takes place in such encampments and that the conditions are unsafe and unsanitary.
At Puuhonua O Waianae, “there’s feces, there’s urine, there’s toilet paper in the bushes,” said Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, a member of the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board. “Why would we engage in having and supporting families who raise their children in that kind of atmosphere?”
Kahanamoku-Teruya said she used to take her grandson to the boat harbor to fish. But the bathrooms are often locked at night and early mornings due to vandalism, which is an inconvenience for visitors, she said.
“Our Waianae Boat Harbor is so filthy and the restrooms are always locked,” she said. “I went over there and I asked (maintenance staff) and they said, ‘Aunty, if we leave it open they come in and use it, they bathe and they trash it.'”
Kahanamoku-Teruya, who has served on the neighborhood board for more than two decades, said many members of the community have opposed the homeless encampment for years.
Some do not come forward, though, for fear of retaliation, she said.
Cynthia Rezentes, Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board chairwoman, said residents also worry that safe zones will create an attitude of dependence in which homeless people will not pursue permanent housing.
“What is the exit strategy to help them exit and get into housing?” Rezentes asked. “What is the plan from here to where we no longer as the general public are providing their homes for them while we’re trying to provide homes for ourselves.”
A majority of the board’s members are not in favor of safe zones in general or Puuhonua O Waianae in particular, she said, adding the state would “have a real difficult time” establishing a safe zone in Nanakuli.
While some Nanakuli residents oppose Puuhonua O Waianae, the largely self-governing homeless community has been considered as a potential model for what safe zones could look like across the state.
Waianae resident and longtime Puuhonua volunteer James Pakele said placing more homeless people in concentrated areas would allow them to consistently receive the social and health services they need, while reducing the number of emergency room visits and hospital stays.
“We hear from some of the service providers that they’re working with this person and next they come in and sweep and they can’t find the person because it’s not like they can leave a forwarding address,” Pakele said.
“Service providers might find them three or four months down the road but by that time, whether it’s mental or physical health, everything has relapsed and now you’re back to square one,” he said.
Sweeps to move the homeless out of encampments are costly and don’t resolve the homelessness problem, Pakele said.
“If they started sweeping everybody all over the place in Waianae then the sidewalks would start to look like Kakaako,” he said.
After news broke in March that the state planned to clear Puuhonua O Waianae, some residents and members of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board rallied in support of the homeless community and the state backed off.
Kellen Smith, a board member, said that “houselessness” should not be illegal and that it is important for homeless individuals to have a permanent place to stay.
“I’m not saying I think everyone should be able to squat wherever they want,” Smith said. “I just think that the Puuhonua O Waianae is unique in a sense that they take care of themselves, clean and up and even do outreach to the community.”
He said the board is currently working with the encampment to find a permanent site.
Kahanamoku-Teruya said that homeless families should be relocated into shelters where children and adults can receive proper assistance.
While an annual survey conducted by Partners in Care and Bridging the Gap recently reported a 9.6 percent decrease in the state’s homeless population, the same survey found that Leeward Coast homelessness increased by 17 percent compared to a year ago.
Although Puuhonua O Waianae has had a high profile in recent years, there are several smaller homeless encampments in West Oahu.
One is near Pokai Bay Beach Park in Waianae, where shopping carts, clothes and cardboard boxes are in large piles on the sand. One particular homeless couple can often be seen arguing and fighting in the area.
Another is near Lualualei Naval Road in Nanakuli, where more than a dozen tents and makeshift shacks built out of blankets and tarps are spread across an overgrown field.
This encampment is next to a residential neighborhood and the Kaiser Permanente Nanaikeola Clinic.
Residents who live in the nearby Helelua Street neighborhood say they have been harassed by some of the homeless people who live in the field and there have also been reports of brush fires and syringes in the bushes.
Nanakuli resident Orville Salibad, who has lived in the community for more than 10 years, said drug dealing and prostitution happens in the area at night. He estimates 75 to 100 homeless people live there currently.
“It was just an empty lot where you could walk the dogs and stuff,” Salidad said. “But within the last year or two it got worse.”
Honolulu Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, whose district includes Nanakuli and Waianae, did not respond to a request for comment. Her community liaison, Chelsea Kewley, said the property is a private lot and not maintained by the city.
Kewley said that unless the property owner requests the removal of individuals or they are committing crimes, the Honolulu Police Department cannot remove them. She added that Pine’s office has not received any inquiries regarding the property recently.
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