‘Homeless safe zones don’t yet exist.’ Really?

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The newspaper had a story the other day that featured a quirky state representative who has been pretty high-profile in the public discussion about homelessness on Oahu.

He said he favors the creation of “homeless safe zones” where people could legally camp and have access to restrooms.  Officials have been talking about this idea for years.  Some believe safe zones are a good first step for getting people off the streets.  Others feel safe zones would divert money and attention from the need for more permanent supportive housing.

The article then stated as fact that such safe zones “don’t yet exist” on Oahu.

Is that really true?  I suppose that depends on what the definition of “is” is.

Maybe what the writer really meant to say was that authorities refuse to acknowledge that they have created the functional equivalent of safe zones by virtue of failing to effectively address the island’s homelessness crisis or prevent squatters from seizing control of parks and other public property and creating their own safe zones.

The snapshot above shows the tent city that has grown up along the Pearl Harbor Bike Path and Neal S. Blaisdell Park in Aiea.  It’s been there for years, and the residents have full access to restrooms, water spigots, picnic pavilions, and other amenities.  In fact it often feels like they’ve completely taken over the facilities, especially the pavilions closest to the water.

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That’s just one example.  Another obvious one is the huge encampment on state property by the Waianae Boat Harbor.  It’s going on its second decade while authorities talk about providing something better for these folks but mostly just look the other way.

In fact, state officials publicly opposed the creation of safe zones on state property long after the harbor village had already been established without their assistance, as if it just wasn’t there.  Since authorities know all about the village and have taken no action to close it, they have created, or rather allowed the creation of, a safe zone.  They just don’t admit it.

Then, of course, there are other sprawling encampments in plain view all around, such as along Nimitz Highway and at Makai Waterfront Park in Kakaako.  Restrooms are often improvised.

And then there’s the city’s Hale Mauliola camp on Sand Island, which provides dwelling units made from recycled shipping containers rather than bring-your-own tents, along with social services.  That sure seems to be a safe zone, and a much better one than some of the others.

The biggest “unofficial” safe zone surrounded the Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako until some of its more spirited residents beat the crap out of the state representative mentioned above, drawing enough attention to prompt authorities to finally dismantle the huge third-world shantytown they had allowed to become established.  Without calling it a safe zone, of course.

Do safe zones work?  Are they a good idea?  Yes and no.  It depends on the location, the population served, the way the zone is managed, the intent, and what other resources are made available in addition to the safe zone.

They are certainly not a real solution to homelessness.

But can we all at least stop pretending they aren’t even there?




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