The Kakaako homelessness situation is finally getting the attention it should have received long ago.
Some of the agencies responsible for the area are jumping in to help when in the past they held back, feeling that management of a growing homeless slum wasn’t their responsibility.
John Whalen, board chairman of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, says in its regular meeting Wednesday the agency for the first time in its history will discuss how it can get directly involved with the city and state to better manage the problem.
Whalen says HCDA had considered Kakaako’s growing homeless encampment the purview of the state’s social service agencies and the city.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HCDA is the state agency that oversees development in Kakaako and is the landlord for some Kakaako tenants.
Whalen says, “We need to work together now. We need to come together to cooperate. It can’t be just a single agency trying to solve the homeless problem.”
Kakaako business and nonprofit tenants in the area say poor sanitation and lawlessness have been quietly festering for more than a year at the homeless encampment.
But only after the attack on state Rep. Tom Brower by two homeless teenagers has there been broad public concern and a demand for action.
“We need to come together to cooperate. It can’t be just a single agency trying to solve the homeless problem.” — John Whalen, chair, HCDA
The homeless encampment on Ohe Street surrounds the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center and edges Kakaako Waterfront Park.
The area became a de facto safe zone after the city’s sit-lie law pushed street dwellers off sidewalks in places like Waikiki and Chinatown.
Since the expansion of the Kakaako tent city, the popular Children’s Discovery Center there has been vandalized continuously by homeless adults and children who climb over its walls to defecate, deface the walls with graffiti, burn the plants and siphon off fresh water and electricity.
At one point the situation became so bad that a homeless camper found a strip of orange netting which he strung up as a fence along the back side of the children’s museum to protect the facility from other homeless campers sneaking into the museum’s back garden.
The orange netting is still there but vandals have since broken through its sections.
Whalen says the new HCDA board began planning six weeks ago for its briefing on homelessness.
The homeless street scene in front of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Since then, the issue has become especially timely after Rep Brower was injured.
And after increased appeals for help to HCDA from its Kakaako tenants, including Loretta Yajima, chair of the board of Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.
Yajima says the museum is struggling to keep up with the repairs, maintenance and cleaning of equipment that has been broken or vandalized.
“We have to raise funds to support the operations of the center, which is a difficult enough task in itself. And using those funds for maintenance, repairs and security instead of our educational programs is tragic.”
Yajima says she remains optimistic that “… under John’s leadership and the commitment from his newly elected board we will get the help that we’ve so desperately needed for way too long.”
Whalen says he is particularly irked by some homeless residents’ statements that Kakaako is their permanent home.
Whalen mentions a recent interview on Hawaii News Now during which 17-year-old homeless camper Isaiah Totoa told reporter Chelsea Davis he was mad at Brower for invading his privacy by taking pictures of the tents.
In the interview, Totoa said, “How would you feel if I walked into your house and just started recording you? We live here. This is our house. Respect it.”
Totoa is one of the homeless teenagers accused of assaulting Brower.
“We have to raise funds to support the operations of the center, which is a difficult enough task in itself. And using those funds for maintenance, repairs and security instead of our educational programs is tragic.” — Loretta Yajima, Children’s Discovery Center
Whalen says, “This sense of entitlement is sad and will be the cause of continuing conflict. The area really isn’t meant to be a place where people reside. The homeless are mistaken to try to stake a claim to this public place.”
Whalen says the goal of HCDA’s homeless briefing is for board members to gather information to figure out what it should do next to help.
He says he is unsure of an overall solution is for Kakaako’s homeless population: “It is a sad story, but something more satisfactory has to be found than just leaving the homeless alone.”
Whalen says in the short term, HCDA should pay for increased security for the Children’s Discovery Center.
For the longer term, Whalen is concerned about keeping park space in Kakaako safe for park-goers, some of whom are now fearful of coming into the area.
He says homeless people are welcome in the Kakaako parks during park hours just like everybody else, but they can’t lay claim to the public property for their own long-term residential use.
“Hopefully, the homeless encampment in Kakaako will not be there forever,” Whalen says. “We have to recapture this public space. We should not throw up our hands and surrender public land to the homeless.”
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.