Concerns raised about toxicity of soil at city's proposed homeless transition center

Concerns raised about toxicity of soil at city's proposed homeless transition center (10p)
Published: Sep. 10, 2014 at 10:04 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Department of Health officials don't believe the plot of land city officials are proposing turning into a homeless transition center is unsafe, despite concerns some have raised about the toxicity of the soil in the area.

State health records indicate the plot of land city officials are considering on Sand Island may have hazardous levels of contaminants, like arsenic and lead, because it was used as a municipal ash and solid waste dump site for decades -- but officials are saying more recent, additional studies are needed.

"The main threat to human health would be if a young child were to ingest the dirt that's contaminated with these chemicals or metals and the likelihood of that is not great. We have developed the whole south shore of our islands -- as an example, Kakaako Waterfront Park is built on an old ash landfill. So all of that where thousands of people everyday go down and have a great time at the Waterfront Park -- they're actually playing on top of an old ash dump. So there are ways that you can design and protect public health by covering -- either cement cover or dirt and grass cover -- to make sure that there's no contamination to anyone who might be enjoying that site," explained Environmental Deputy Director Gary Gill with the state Department of Health.

City officials say they take any potential health threat to the homeless who may be moved there very seriously.

"We are going to do our due diligence and we are going to investigate that thoroughly," said Peter Hirai, the Deputy Director of the Department of Emergency Management for the City and County of Honolulu.

Hirai says the Department of Transportation owns the land, and requests have been made with both them and the Department of Health, for studies of the area.

"We have to look at everything and perhaps pick another site or do some kind of alternative to the ground to protect it better. That's part of the reason why we're going to do grading and put down the recycled asphalt product as an extra layer of protection, but depending on what we find out, we'll take appropriate measure," Hirai said, adding that no alternative backup site has been identified at this time.

Hirai says there are also no plans to lay down concrete or build any structures on the property.

"What we're looking at for this is because it's so transitional we don't want people to think that there's going to be any kind of permanence to their housing over there. We don't want them setting roots down," Hirai said, explaining the city's position. "We don't want this to become a tent city."

The area of Sand Island city officials are considering is just off Sand Island Parkway, past the bridge and across the street from Sandbox BMX. Officials say it was one of 25 sites they considered, and was ultimately selected because it's not in a densely packed residential area but is still close to service providers.

"We hope to create something that people can be comfortable with knowing that there's no easy solution and nobody wants it in their backyard, but it has to go someplace," Hirai said.

Critics say it's unlikely the homeless will voluntarily go there -- even with 24/7 security and free bus rides to help move them.

"You cannot just put people out there -- especially kids! Imagine it's 87 degrees, you're out in a place with no trees, no place to play -- living on the ground in a place that may be chemically contaminated. If Mayor Caldwell thinks that people are going to relocate from the sidewalks of Waikiki to a barren desert like that without any shelter at all from the hot sun -- I think it's a mistake, that's not going to happen," said Larry Geller, a homeless advocate and president of Kokua Council.

"You don't put human beings on a place like that, you just don't. It's not suitable for human habitation and that's the bottom line on it. Not to mention, they've picked the farthest place on the island that was formally used as an ethnic Japanese internment camp immediately after the war -- but the government at least gave them tents, Mayor Caldwell is not even going to do that," Geller said.

"Hawai'i is full of historical value everywhere but we need to use something and it's temporary in nature so we hope to use it and hope that people can forget about the ghosts of the past," said Hirai.

The city says the facility will not be a "safe zone" as some have refereed to it, but rather an extension of their Housing First program -- which is designed to move the homeless into affordable, permanent housing. The Sand Island Transition Center is intended to provide a safe, supportive environment -- complete with assessment and supportive services in the interim, until those housing units become available.

Officials are calling it a "stopgap measure" to immediately support 100 of the most challenged, unsheltered individuals and families.

"What they need to do is be able or be willing to participate in the Housing First transitional program so eventually they are part of the solution and not just keep adding to our problem," Hirai said.

"We looked at some best practices from the previous A'Ala Park experience, so we're incorporating those -- the number one being the need for security. Our previous facility had no security and that was a big huge lesson we learned from that, so we are going to have 24/7 security for this site. The other is to have a provider on site 24/7. If somebody shows up at the middle of the night and needs intake -- at the very least they can do a little bit of initial intake until the morning, when the service providers can be fully staffed," said Hirai.

"Hopefully our rules will balance between lawlessness all the way up to too strict for anybody to come. Because it's transition to the Housing First program, they will sort of need to have that willingness to come in," Hirai said.

Supportive services, case management, and transportation services will all be available to clients and there is no charge to stay at the facility.

The city also said the Center will offer a hygiene center, secure storage, segregated sleeping and community areas, and be pet friendly.

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