Our View: Seattle’s homeless crisis should be Kona’s warning

Kailua-Kona can learn a lot from Seattle.

The Emerald City should shine as an example for West Hawaii on what not to become.

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It’s beautiful to be sure, nestled on Elliott Bay in the grandiose Pacific Northwest. It’s smart, anchored by a top university and the epicenter of Boeing and Amazon. It’s cool. Think Jimi Hendricks, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and grunge.

But many residents there believe the city’s dying — if not dead already.

The reason, detailed in an excellent KOMO News television report, is because of its homeless problem.

It’s out of control. It has overrun the city.

“It’s about citizens who don’t feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle,” KOMO News’ Eric Johnson wrote about the message behind his hour-long, unflinching report, “Seattle is Dying.”

“It’s about filth and degradation all around us,” he wrote. “And theft and crime. It’s about people who don’t feel protected anymore.”

This isn’t a fly-by piece of journalism. We encourage everyone to watch.

It dives deep on the homeless crisis, tracing how and when the problem got to where it is. Today, tent camps are synonymous with images of downtown. The sidewalk leading to Safeco Field, where the Mariners play baseball, is lined with junk and makeshift huts. The images and examples are jaw-dropping as they are endless.

Do those conjure up any familiar Kona sights? They should.

On Monday, state crews cleaned a well-known homeless camp off Palani Road and Queen Kaahumanu Highway and the photos of the mess were on the cover of Tuesday’s newspaper. Similar ones were again Wednesday, Thursday and today. Just as they were back in the summer when the state cleared out another well-known camp, the Tunnels.

But back to the Great Northwest.

“I believe that Seattle is dying,” Johnson went on to write about why they produced the piece, “rotting from within.”

Does that sound familiar?

It should, to a degree. Many Kona residents have shared similar concerns about their leeward paradise slipping into a similar fate.

This all might seem dramatic. Kona, the old fishing village, certainly doesn’t experience anything close to what Seattle endures.

Agreed.

But there are signs around Kona that say we should take Seattle’s story seriously.

That’s because those indicators cropping up on Alii Drive, Kuakini Highway and the Old Kona Industrial Area are the same ones Seattleites saw years ago but didn’t act upon.

It’s hindsight for them, but for us, it can be a roadmap.

The first warning Seattle saw was that the homeless numbers suddenly seemed to increase while their attitudes became more brazen because criminal behavior wasn’t properly punished.

To put the hard-hitting piece in a nutshell, Seattle’s 2017 property crime reports per 100,000 people is second only to San Francisco at 5,258, far outpacing other major cities like New York at 1,448. A few years ago, the Washington State Legislature decriminalized some felony crimes, including possessing small amounts of narcotics. For various reasons, offenses deemed petty in the judicial system weren’t pursued.

But besides turning their backs to small drug amounts, the door toward unruly opened even before that, when even smaller crimes weren’t penalized: crimes such as littering, defecating in pubic, or being drunk or high in public and acting as a nuisance.

Sources in the story look back and say letting those seemingly innocuous things slide sent the wrong message. Now they’re worried they won’t be able to undo what’s been already done.

The second sign Seattle saw was that officials treated and talked about the homeless crisis as an affordable housing issue, when in fact it was and is a mental health and drug and alcohol addiction issue.

Do these things seem familiar?

They, too, should, to a degree.

Kailua Village business owners have been clamoring for more police help when it comes to problems such as vandalism or lewd behaviors their establishments incur as a result of the destructive actions from a handful of homeless individuals.

This newspaper has detailed in several stories those frustrations. Those stories have also shown that police know exactly what they’re dealing with: a handful of men and women uninterested in life off the streets.

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The time to crack down is now. And we don’t believe we’re the only ones who feel this way.

We’re encouraged to see that police and other stakeholders are meeting Tuesday to talk about homeless including enforcement. The all-day gathering will be a brainstorming session to help develop a master plan for the Village 9 homeless project and the affordable rental project near Kealakehe that the county is pursing.

Village 9 is a project we support. But it’s one that is, at best, months away. It also is a project that requires a willing population, as it re-introduces the homeless population to a society and structure they want to engage.

So we hope this meeting goes beyond that. It needs to also be a major step toward truly tackling the enforcement issue around the homeless population that isn’t interested in society and structure — the petty criminals and substance abusers marring the village’s reputation in the eyes of many.

Stakeholders, police included, estimate it’s as few as 10-20 individuals causing a majority of the problem, at least in the Old Kona Industrial Area. As we’ve said before, our jails have room for 10-20 recidivists, regardless of the nature of their crimes.

That’s another lesson from the KOMO report, it’s all a matter of political will.

What does the community want?

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We think we know the answer. We also know the solution won’t be found overnight. But while we strive for admirable long-term fixes — whether it’s Village 9 or yet-to-be funded rehabilitation centers — let’s take immediate action where we can.

Lest we wake up one day the next Seattle, wishing for a do-over.