Will The Next Governor Support Safe Zones For the Homeless?

Earlier this year, state lawmakers funneled $30 million into the creation of “ohana zones,” also known as safe zones, for the homeless.  

Supporters see Senate Bill 2401 as an innovative approach to a homeless crisis that has defied easy solutions. 

But the vague definition of what an ohana zone is means whoever winds up winning the governor’s race — presumably incumbent Gov. David Ige or Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa — will shape what these areas will look like and what services they will provide.

Ige remains steadfast in his opposition to government-sanctioned tent cities, areas where homeless people can camp and live freely. Instead he wants to invest in shelters and programs proven to move homeless into permanent housing.

While they disagree with the governor on semantics and some details, that’s what the lawmakers who crafted SB 2401 want, too.

Rather than the unregulated tent cities and camps that have sprung up around the islands, lawmakers envision ohana zones as secure areas where homeless people can live for a year or two and receive a plethora of social and medical services. Supporters envision ohana zones providing residents with an array of services and a clear path to permanent housing.

In her campaign literature, Hanabusa says “ohana zones offer a promising approach to address homelessness.” And her website criticizes Ige for dragging his feet before signing the legislation and his “lack of enthusiasm” for safe zones.

In a conversation with Civil Beat editor Chad Blair last week, Hanabusa said those using ohana zones will most likely be the “chronics” – perhaps referring to chronically homeless adults as opposed to down-and-out families.  

“It would be those people who have different challenges whether they be mental health issues, whether they be drug or alcohol,” she said.

But Hanabusa, who declined an interview for this story, offered no specifics on what type of shelter would be provided. So it’s uncertain how different her approach to safe zones is than Ige’s.

Since Ige signed the ohana zones bill last month, he said his administration has met with county officials and nonprofits to learn what types of new homeless projects they are interested in creating.

“If there is a county or a services provider that is interested in trying to establish a safe zone we would be willing to talk with them, but we haven’t been able to find anyone who is interested in doing that,” Ige told Civil Beat. “We’re committed to finding programs and supporting programs that work.”

At a Civil Beat event Wednesday, Ige seemed critical of the vagueness of the ohana zone approach. “I’m not like the Legislature just throwing $30 million out and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with it but please figure it out,'” he said.

SB 2401 requires the state to identify six sites on public land for temporary ohana zones, three on Oahu and three in each neighbor county. The state is also required to close the ohana zones by the summer of 2021, with the goal of eventually getting everyone into permanent housing.

An Array Of Approaches

The state and counties fund a spectrum of homeless facilities.

On one end of the spectrum is Kahauiki Village: low-cost housing where formerly homeless families can live indefinitely but are expected to move on to market rate housing.

On the other end is government-sanctioned tent villages. Last August, Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim created Camp Kikaha in Kona, a collection of tarps and tents with a handful of amenities and security. People could live in Camp Kikaha without fear of being swept or ticketed by the police, at least until the camp closed.

In the middle are the transitional and emergency shelters operated by nonprofit service providers.

Which of these qualifies as an ohana zone depends on who you ask.

Kahauiki Village is a “higher-end safe zone, so to speak,” said Sen. Will Espero, who introduced SB 2401 along with Sens. Josh Green and Breene Harimoto. Espero and Green are both candidates for lieutenant governor and hope to work on implementing safe zones.

Ige disagrees. Kahauiki Village is a permanent housing project, he said. The tent city model is the only true safe zone, he said, and it doesn’t work.

“These safe zones end up ending costing almost as much as running quality programs that we know work,” he said.

Two months after it opened, Camp Kikaha was costing Hawaii County about $905 per person per month. Of 51 people who came through the camp, 28 were either kicked out, arrested, returned to homelessness or left of their own accord, the Star Advertiser reported.

Money is better spent on homeless services that have a record of success, Ige said.

He gave the example of the Kakaako Family Assessment Center the state opened up two years ago. Ninety-five percent of homeless families who enter the center move on to permanent housing in less than three months, Ige said.

The Legislature gave the administration $800,000 to create a new assessment center in addition to the $30 million that can be spent on ohana zones. 

Many lawmakers agree the state is not doing enough to help homeless adults without children who abuse drugs or who have mental illness. This population is often unwilling to enter shelters or accept services.

To entice this them to safe zones, lawmakers want the zones to have fewer rules than homeless shelters. At the same time, the safe zones will offer security to manage reckless behavior.

People can be evicted from a safe zone but drug use will be tolerated, said state Rep. John Mizuno, who worked on SB 2401. That balance will be possible, he said, thanks to the abundance of social workers and supportive colleges who will surround safe zone residents. 

Ige doubts that model will work. 

“Typically if there are rules, the chronically homeless will chose not to go into safe zones,” Ige said.

Mizuno and Green say a well-known homeless camp near the Waianae Boat Harbor serves as a model safe zone. The camp’s leader, Twinkle Borge, lives on site and closely monitors the residents. There has been political pressure to relocate the camp in recent months.

“Twinkle’s camp can re-establish but just with more services in a more appropriate location,” Green said. “The shelter and the nature of the roof doesn’t matter as much as the foundational health and human services.”

Green said he wants an on-site nurse practitioner, a psychiatrist and “a bunch of social workers.” Ideally, service providers would live on-site.

Hawaii nonprofits that offer homeless services already have a hard time retaining social workers, who are often underpaid and overworked.

Mizuno also wants safe zones to include showers and toilets, security, education for children and job training for adults, and transportation available to school or work.