For more than a year, Honolulu Police Capt. Mike Lambert and his team of plainclothes officers have teamed up with social workers to help homeless individuals find shelter, medical care and substance abuse treatment.

But with more help on the ground, there’s a bigger need for more shelter than Honolulu can accommodate.

To deal with those spikes in demand, Lambert and HPD are working on their most ambitious plan for homeless individuals to date. The department wants city leaders to relax or “lift” overnight camping rules in local parks, creating “lift zones” where they would locate inflatable industrial-grade tents for the homeless when shelters fill up.

Large tent located along King Street at Aala Park with scores of tents and other structures.
Honolulu police want to rotate 10 industrial-grade tents around parks in Oahu, where the homeless can stay temporarily if they agree to take the next available bed in a shelter. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We’ve hit a point in the battle where we are actually maxing out shelter services,” Lambert told the Honolulu Police Commission last week. “The system is so close to capacity that we’re hitting issues where we’re having short periods of time where we can’t provide services.”

And when people don’t get into a shelter, they’re less inclined to focus on services, Lambert said.

“What we don’t want to do is lose an opportunity to help someone,” Lambert said.

The way HPD envisions the $3 million program, the lift zones would not be based in one park or one area of Honolulu. Lambert said the department is meeting with City Council members later this week to talk about their vision and what public parkland could be used.

Once a park site is selected, HPD would bring up to 10 inflatable tents made by Pennsylvania-based FAST Shelter that can house 54 individuals or more than 100 family members.

The tents would remain between 60 and 90 days and health care and other social service partners would be based there to help individuals move into a more permanent living arrangements elsewhere. The tents, which cost $15,000 each, can last up to six years with daily use, Lambert said.


HPD proposes using tents like this one to house homeless individuals in parks when shelters fill up. Honolulu Police Department

Plainclothes officers would be on hand in the parks and additional patrols would police nearby neighborhoods.

By using the parks, Lambert said, it keeps the temporary part of his plan truly temporary. Every 60 to 90 days, the tents would relocate to a different part of Honolulu. And when the zone moves, so do the service providers. That helps bring services to parts of the city where there are not as many service offerings, Lambert said.

“Service providers can come and provide treatment in an area that doesn’t exist at the moment,” he said.

“We’ve hit a point in the battle where we actually maxing out shelter services.” — HPD Captain Mike Lambert

According to a statewide count in 2018, there were about 5,000 people who were homeless on Oahu. Of those, 2,145 of them go without shelter.

Participation in the lift zones would be voluntary. No one would be forced to enter them. But all who choose the tents must move to a bed in a homeless shelter when they become available.


HPD’s lift zone plan would offer temporary shelter space for the homeless as seen in this recent presentation to the Honolulu Police Commission. Honolulu Police Department

HPD is seeking funding from the state to operate the project. There’s $30 million available for ohana or safe zone projects for the homeless and Gov. David Ige’s office is now considering proposals.

Lambert said unlike safe zones, this would be a temporary homeless location, not a permanent one.

Police Chief Susan Ballard said so far there’s been support from other agencies for HPD’s proposal.

“This is truly a project that everybody is getting behind,” she said.

Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan seemed to agree. “This is totally out of the box thinking,” she said.

If the program is funded and land could be located, the first lift zone could be up and operational by next spring, Lambert said.

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