City Council chair says 'safe zones' needed for Oahu's homeless

City Council chair says ‘safe zones’ needed for Oahu’s homeless

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin said the body is searching for nine sites across Oahu that the city could turn into "safe zones," would he described as transition points for the homeless.

He said the zones could designated at vacant residential property, or in a vacant residential or commercial facility.

Martin said the safe zones would not be tent cities, but centers where homeless people can do laundry, use restrooms and showers, and get plugged into permanent housing or homeless shelters.

"It's a matter of putting them in the proper environment so hopefully one day they'll be able to get into a more sustainable lifestyle," he said.

Service providers could oversee the safe zones, which he said would be similar to the city's transitional center going up at Sand Island.

This isn't the first time Hawaii lawmakers have floated the idea of safe zones to tackle the state's homeless crisis. But proposals have never gotten off the ground, in part because of a lack of funding.

Martin said the city could tap into $160 million the council dedicated over the last two years for homeless solutions to pay for the Oahu safe zones.

On Monday, the city and advocates didn't shoot down the idea of safe zones, but said they would need to be managed properly.

City Managing Director Roy Amemiya said city oversight would be crucial to minimize liability concerns.

"If we're looking at a place where people can go and get cleaned up and have a good night's sleep in a safe environment, definitely that's a step up from what they're currently experiencing," he added.

Jenny Lee, of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said if safe zones are established the city should include storage bins.

"People can keep their possessions and then that gives them an opportunity to go get services off site or look for employment, go to their job," she said. "They don't have to worry about leaving it on the sidewalk."

Martin believes residents might be more receptive to safe zones in their neighborhoods because homeless families with children would be helped first.

"I think the community would have greater sympathy and empathy for serving that population as opposed to a Housing First participant," he said. Housing First programs are geared toward helping the chronically homeless.

The safe zones proposal comes on the heels of a state emergency proclamation, aimed at tackling the homeless crisis. On Friday, the governor said the proclamation would allow the state to quickly stand up an emergency shelter in the urban core and bolster homeless outreach.

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