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State considers homeless safe zones like Camp Kikaha

Updated: 
October 17, 2017 - 7:17am

HILO — Hawaii County’s Camp Kikaha was offered as an example of a successful homeless safe zone at a meeting in Honolulu last week of a state panel charged with studying the concept.

The camp is the only government-sanctioned temporary homeless neighborhood in Hawaii.

While Honolulu battles its own homeless problems — so far enacting sit-lie laws and closing one makeshift homeless camp only to see another pop up — the panel, a working group of the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, is having a hard time finding an adequate site for a safe zone.

The working group deemed three potential sites in urban Honolulu inappropriate.

State Homeless Coordinator Scott Morishige said Friday he’s asking the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to expand the search islandwide on Oahu and statewide as well. He clarified to West Hawaii Today that there’s no intention of moving Oahu’s estimated almost 5,000 homeless individuals off-island.

“The intent is not to take homeless people from other islands,” Morishige said. “Because all the vacant (Honolulu) parcels do have issues that would prevent consideration, the working group did ask DLNR to look elsewhere on Oahu. … We did ask DLNR to also look at potential vacant lands statewide. … We understand the homeless issue is not just an Oahu issue.”

About 1 million of Hawaii Island’s 2.6 million acres is owned by the state, another 432,000 acres is owned by the federal government, and 34,000 acres is owned by the county, according to 2013 information in the Hawaii Databook.

West Hawaii’s homeless population will soon have another campsite. Known as Village 9, the site near the West Hawaii Civic Center will first be used as a safe zone before being developed into a longterm housing site. It’s expected to house about 100 of the island’s estimated 953 homeless individuals.

The Land Board on Friday approved a right-of-entry and also agreed to transfer ownership of the 35-acre parcel from DLNR to the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., for use as homeless housing. The county anticipates using igloo-style domes for housing.

Homeless individuals, meanwhile, have been congregating in Hilo’s county parks, Mooheau bandstand and Hele-On bus terminal.

Facilities for East Hawaii may take a while yet. Lance Niimi, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim who’s coordinating homeless issues, said the office is currently working on several grant proposals as part of its islandwide strategic plan. He said the office is also working with state partners and local nonprofit agencies.

He couldn’t provide a time-frame for the plan Friday.

“Our mayor works very closely with Gov. (David) Ige,” Niimi said. “(Homeless projects) wouldn’t be possible without the state’s help.”

Camp Kikaha, a tent city with room for 32 people in Kailua-Kona, cost about $4,000 to set up and has a monthly budget of $21,207, he said.

The state has provided $1.3 million to Hawaii County over the past two years for homeless projects, Morishige said.

Safe zones are not Ige’s first choice for housing homeless people, as he prefers the “Housing First” approach that puts people into permanent housing and then connects them with services such as substance abuse and employment counseling. Safe zones, in contrast, provide services to homeless individuals while they live in government-sanctioned tent cities or other types of homeless housing.

Ige let a bill become law without his signature earlier this year that created a panel to study safe zones.

“The Housing First approach has been the preferred solution to address homelessness in Hawaii,” Ige said in his message accompanying the act.

He cited a 2012 Hawaii lnteragency Council on Homelessness report that said creating “camping areas for homeless individuals in our parks and in our public buildings … is unworkable, is not advisable, and should not be pursued.”

“The better longterm strategy is to link people to housing,” Ige added.

But safe zones are proving, at least on the Big Island, to be a good short-term alternative, supporters say.

“At Camp Kikaha we are able to provide a safe place where residents have little concern of being victimized in any way,” Hawaii County officials said in a statement to the working group. “That in itself changes behavior and reduces incidents of aggression as a survival tool.”

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