Hawaii considers "safe zones" for homeless encampments

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii is exploring allowing homeless people to camp in designated "safe zones" or to rent space in private driveways and yards, as part of an array of offbeat solutions to its homelessness crisis, which ranks worst in the nation.

The ideas run contrary to a trend among cities — including Honolulu — to pass laws criminalizing homelessness, said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

A handful of cities have tried setting up "safe zones" or sanctioned homeless encampments that provide access to sanitary facilities, social services and security, but it's unusual for a state to do so, Tars said.

"I think everyone's just trying to nibble away at the edge of this homeless issue, providing as many alternatives as possible," said Rep. Bob McDermott, who co-sponsored the driveway bill. "Most states, there's plenty of land. We're ocean-locked, we're on an island, and there's only so many places you can go."

With its high cost of housing, and relatively low wages, Hawaii has struggled with homelessness for decades. Honolulu banned sitting and lying down in Waikiki after tourists and residents complained about the situation, but illegal encampments persist.

Gov. David Ige's office is fighting the bills, saying state-sanctioned homeless encampments are unsafe and contradict federal housing recommendations, risking Hawaii's federal housing money.

"Some of these areas that are being identified as potential homeless campgrounds are very isolated, difficult for people to get to, so it's not necessarily a given that even if you provide it that people would go there," said Scott Morishige, the governor's homelessness coordinator.

A state task force discouraged sanctioned encampments because they encourage a nomadic lifestyle and divert money needed for permanent housing.

Portland, Oregon, and Seattle allowed legal camping but struggled with safety issues, just as Honolulu did when it set up a camp in the early '90s that had to be shut down by police, Morishige said.

But the pace of new affordable housing development is not keeping up with demand, and the question remains unanswered of where people should go while the number of homeless people outstrips the number of homes and shelter beds.

Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, is pushing for a large-scale sanctioned encampment on Sand Island, an industrial area in Honolulu.

"At the very least, Sand Island today has recreational camping that at full capacity will hold 400 people," Espero said. "You could have 400 people there tomorrow. But instead they're living in parks."

The idea was welcomed Wednesday by homeless people living in tents in Kakaako, a Honolulu park that was home to about 300 homeless people until it was cleared in 2015.

Iose Iose, a homeless father, said he wants to get his family into a shelter and eventually housing, but he welcomes the idea of a legal camp while he's waiting for a better option because he's constantly losing possessions when camping bans are enforced.

"There's plenty big lots around," Iose said. "They are sitting over there not being used."

Tom Brower, chairman of the House Housing Committee, said Ige's opposition to the bills is ironic because the state has allowed homeless encampments to exist.

"The only time they enforce is when the community screams and yells about it for months," said Brower, who was attacked at a Honolulu homeless encampment two years ago when taking photos of living conditions. Setting aside places where people can legally camp, including driveways, would make it easier to enforce laws in other areas, he said.

"It's not that we want people to camp in someone's driveway," Brower said, "but with the situation we have now people camping everywhere...would that stop them from camping somewhere else where they shouldn't be?"