More ‘safe zone’ follies in Kakaako

Kakaako camp 1
Let’s just pretend it’s not there?

Officially, “safe zones” for homeless people to legally camp in tents and shacks don’t exist on Oahu.

But we have them, of course, even if authorities don’t like to admit it.

Besides the huge squatter camp next to the Waianae Boat Harbor mentioned previously, Kakaako Waterfront Park in downtown Honolulu is obviously a government-sanctioned safe zone.

Kakaako has long been an epicenter of government failure to address the island’s growing homelessness crisis, and problems there spiraled completely out of control for several years.

Some highly publicized incidents finally induced a crackdown, but problems persisted after that and still do.

The state finally demolished a squalid Third-World shantytown they had allowed to be constructed near the Children’s Discovery Center, then eventually converted an old maintenance building beside Kakaako Waterfront Park into a shelter for homeless families, purportedly to reduce the number still camping in and around the park.

Kakaako Waterfront Park tents 2.2
Kakaako Waterfront Park one year ago.

But since then, the encampment right outside the shelter has just grown larger and more permanent-looking, with tents being steadily replaced by structures with walls made from wooden pallets and packing crates.  A new shantytown.

Kakaako camp 1.JPG
Kakaako Waterfront Park today.  An improvement?

There are lots of problems with this.  For starters, unpermitted camping and erecting of structures is illegal in public parks.  And the Kakaako encampment underscores the government’s failure to effectively address the need for transitional shelter and affordable housing.

But more importantly, allowing the encampment to remain and grow right outside a new homeless shelter demonstrates to the community that in many ways, shelters and similar facilities don’t really solve problems in the specific neighborhoods in which they are located. 

In fact, the encampment shows that allowing a new facility to come into a neighborhood often guarantees that there will be a permanent, if not growing, presence of homeless campers and related problems on the facility’s periphery.

We’ve seen this time and time again.  The Institute for Human Services shelter in Iwilei did not eliminate the problem of homeless people and druggies sprawling all over the neighborhood. Far from it.

The problems actually became much worse as people lurked around waiting for the shelter to open or to meet up with friends staying at the shelter.  And once it becomes clear that authorities have no control over that kind of conduct, others who have no interest in staying in a shelter or no direct connection with the shelter will also gravitate to the area and become a permanent part of the landscape.


The same thing happened in Kakaako after the state opened the huge “Next Step Shelter” there more than a decade ago, supposedly on a temporary basis.  Guests were forced to leave the shelter during the day, and most simply hung out in the nearby park.  Quite a few found that they liked it there better than the shelter, and when they discovered that authorities did not consistently enforce laws in the area, they started pitching tents and digging in.  And that’s how the situation in Kakaako became so bad in the first place, compounded of course by rising rents, the meth epidemic, and other factors.

Heap of bikes
Bike chop shop in plain view in Kakaako park not long ago.

There are still plenty of homeless people camped around the Next Step shelter.

Kakaako camp 5.JPG
Near the Next Step shelter today.

And now there are plenty just outside the new Kakaako shelter too.

Kakaako camp 3.JPG

So the main point here is that Kakaako Waterfront Park is in fact a government-sanctioned safe zone for homeless campers, just like the Waianae Boat Harbor, whether anyone wants to admit it or not.

The second point is that nobody should be surprised or get all indignant if neighbors to a proposed new shelter or facility vehemently object to it.  After all, while it might do lots of good in addressing homelessness in the larger sense, it will not necessarily make conditions any better in that particular neighborhood.  It might just make them much, much worse.

Kakaako toughies
Would you welcome this scene in your neighborhood?  Tell the truth.

And that’s really a shame, became we do need shelters and other facilities, and new affordable housing, to address this crisis.

But we also need competent and responsive authorities who consistently enforce laws so that neighborhoods that host those needed facilities are not dumped on, damaged, forsaken, and ignored.


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