EDITORIAL: Get creative on ‘ohana zones’
Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 8, 2018
There’s a reason why the maxim “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is so often cited in reference to some government action or other. It’s because the principal applies to many government programs that have to address such wide-ranging needs and limitations.
It certainly applies to the homelessness crisis. Experts have affirmed that providing permanent, stable housing and wraparound social services is the most effective strategy in general. Federal support is available in particular for rehousing the chronically homeless, using this model.
The reality, however, is that Hawaii is woefully underequipped with sufficient housing units to deliver this solution exclusively. It really is time to make adaptations that provide help to more people who are languishing unsheltered throughout the islands.
There isn’t a social need in Hawaii that seems quite as pressing as housing and homelessness, and the state Legislature has responded on a few key fronts. A $570 million outlay is distributed to fund tax exemptions to encourage construction, money for state land acquisition and infrastructure and, most significantly, $200 million for building about 1,600 affordable units priced for households at or below 80 percent of area median income.
On top of that, lawmakers separately allotted in Senate Bill 2401 $30 million to open up to six “ohana zones” statewide, on state or county land, as fallback accommodations for the homeless. Ohana zones are the Hawaii adaptation of the “safe zones” concept, also known elsewhere as “tent cities.” They are controversial everywhere, not the least here in the islands.
And it has emerged as a campaign issue for the two candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gov. David Ige has long opposed such temporary camps for those now living on streets and in hidden places, adopting what experts endorse as best-practice policy of directing resources instead to permanent housing.
During last week’s televised debate, he expressed his doubts about enacting SB 2401, still sitting on his desk. His challenger for the top executive office, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, has called on the incumbent to implement the program.
Hanabusa should come up with more solution-oriented specifics on what she would implement as governor, beyond dressing down the current office-holder for his policies. But she’s right on the basic point: Ige needs to think through his aversion to the idea.
SB 2401 would make it easy for the governor to do so, as it defines only loosely what is required of an ohana zone. It’s a place “that has a program to address basic needs of individuals experiencing homelessness; and where wrap-around services, social and health care services, transportation, and other services may be offered with the goals of alleviating poverty and transitioning individuals experiencing homelessness into affordable housing.”
This is described as a pilot program that “may provide” facilities at each site: “secure dwelling spaces that may be private or communal; have access to toilets, showers and other hygiene facilities; and have access to an area for food storage and meal preparation.” Other items listed include “medical and social support services and transportation to appointments related to medical care or supportive services that are not available onsite.”
Nothing appears to be written in stone on that list. And in general, the suggestions seem to align with initiatives that the governor supports himself.
Example: The state repurposed a storage shed adjacent to Kakaako Waterfront Park to become the Family Assessment Center; a twin facility would largely fit within the bill’s description of an “ohana zone,” if that’s the approach the administration endorses.
There is also the city’s Hale Mauliola “navigation center” on leased state land. In June, the governor made a tour and mulled replicating it for the families displaced by the eruption.
There’s no reason why a version of either model couldn’t be funded through SB 2401.
Ige may be opposed to creating what’s more characteristically termed as a “safe zone,” a loosely controlled tent-city operation often associated with security issues. A pilot of that concept, Camp Kikaha in Kailua-Kona, was ultimately shut down as a failed experiment.
The bill does include the statement, “ohana zones should, at least initially, be temporary.” While the push is for permanent housing, that shouldn’t seem such a stopper, either. Both the assessment center and Hale Mauliola are designed to be temporary, too.
The bottom line is that it’s incumbent on the state to provide better options for its homeless citizens. Hawaii has finally made a sizable investment aimed at increasing the housing inventory.
While we wait for that to materialize, ohana zones, however they’re designed, are surely better than the sidewalks, parks and gutters. Moving people off the street to an ohana zone, even if not perfect, would be a good thing to do.