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At first glance, David Ippen has picked an ideal spot for his business.
Ippen’s martial-arts school, Taekwondo Honolulu, occupies the site of a former auto-repair shop on a quiet stretch of Isenberg Street — right across from Old Stadium Park at the heart of the McCully-Moiliili neighborhood.
But the proximity to the park has a drawback: Over the years, Ippen has had his share of troubles with homeless people who have taken up residence there.
A year and a half ago, for instance, Ippen’s water bill shot up to $400 — more than quadruple the usual amount. It didn’t take him long to figure out what caused it: The water faucet outside his school was being used by homeless people as a makeshift shower at night.
Once Ippen installed a locking cap on the faucet, the water bill went down, but other troubles persist, he says. Some days, fights break out in the park. Other days, he has to clean up after defecation on the side of the building.
“I feel for these people; their situation is really sad — but, when they start breaking things and get really loud, saying horrible things to each other, that’s really bad for kids here,” said Ippen, who has about 150 students — 100 of whom are children. “It’s difficult for us, especially because we have so many kids here. We want them to be safe.”
“The system is not that great; we can’t be proud of it or anything. But how else can we protect the small businesses and residents who are suffering?” — City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi
To alleviate the plight of residents and small-business owners like Ippen, the city has been dispatching a crew from the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance five days a week to enforce the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances, aimed at clearing the city’s sidewalks and parks for public use — at an annual cost of about $750,000, since the statutes were enacted in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
In May and June alone, the eight-man crew went to more than 40 sites — usually multiple times to each — to carry out 164 sweeps, according to enforcement records obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request.
An analysis of the records — which list the location, as well as the amount of trash removed for every sweep conducted during the past two months — shows the sweeps were carried out most often in lesser-known locations where homeless people congregate, rather than in the city’s more high-profile encampments like those in Kakaako and along Kapalama Canal.
The highest number of sweeps — 18 in all — were conducted at Old Stadium Park during the past two months, the analysis shows.
Kapahulu Bike Path had the second highest number of sweeps, with 17. Three other locations — Aala, Ala Moana and Ala Wai parks — had more than 10 sweeps each.
Ross Sasamura, the facility maintenance director, says the department determines where the crew should go based on complaints the city receives.
But whether the sweeps are making any impact is far from clear. Even proponents admit that they bring only temporary relief: Within a matter of days, if not hours, homeless people often go right back to where they were.
Critics say the sweeps are a waste of city resources.
“So, what are we achieving with (the sweeps)? Ultimately, it’s the sense that something — anything — needs to be done, even if it does not mean we’re actually making progress on homelessness,” said Jenny Lee, public policy director for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “We’re better off managing public spaces in a humane, safe way to minimize harm toward people experiencing homelessness, since the sweeps clearly aren’t clearing out the camps, let alone reducing homelessness.”
But Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who represents McCully-Moiliili, says the enforcement of the storage property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances is the only tool the city has in responding to residents’ concerns in areas outside the boundary of the city’s “sit-lie” ban.
“The system is not that great; we can’t be proud of it or anything,” said Kobayashi, who co-sponsored both statutes. “But how else can we protect the small businesses and residents who are suffering?”
One morning in late June, Kapalama Canal was abuzz with activity.
It was barely past dawn, but people were already on the move, disassembling tents and makeshift structures they’d set up along the Kohou Street side of the canal.
They all knew a sweep was coming.
Under the terms of the stored property ordinance, they had been given a 24-hour notice and knew the drill: They stuffed their belongings into shopping carts, hand trucks and wagons — even a taxi van — and began a mass exodus.
By the time the city trucks showed up at around 7 a.m. — accompanied by two police cars — only a few stragglers were hanging around.
For the next two hours, the facility maintenance crew was a model of efficiency, throwing trash into a garbage truck and hoisting larger items — a few mattresses, shopping carts and a handful of bicycle parts — onto a flatbed truck. When it was done, the banks of the canal were all cleared out, save for some remaining debris.
“They’ve just become part of the process that homeless folks routinely go through in this cat-and-mouse game that we’ve been playing.” — City Councilman Joey Manahan
It wouldn’t stay that way for long; by the end of the day, people trickled back and began setting up their tents again.
Councilman Joey Manahan, whose district includes the area along the canal, has seen this play out many times. In May and June, the city carried out six sweeps there. But there are more than 50 tents at the site now.
To Manahan, it’s evidence that the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances are a failure.
“At this point, I’d say that (the sweeps) are not working. They’ve just become part of the process that homeless folks routinely go through in this cat-and-mouse game that we’ve been playing,” Manahan said. “Once they’re warned, they know to pack up their tents and get off the sidewalk — they know they can come back as soon as the sweeps are done.”
While he still supports the sweeps elsewhere, Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a moratorium on them at the fast-growing Kakaako homeless encampment.
According to the Hawaii Department of Health’s nursing branch, the number of tents set up on Kakaako sidewalks has gone up dramatically — from 62 in September to 185 in June — since the city began enforcing the sit-lie ban, which prohibits people from sitting or lying in other parts of Honolulu.
No sweeps have been carried out since Caldwell called off the enforcement there late last year.
Caldwell told Hawaii News Now in May that the sweeps were hampered by the fact that the city doesn’t have full control of the land in Kakaako.
In one sense, Caldwell’s moratorium represents a partial retreat from what he calls “compassionate disruption,” a strategy underpinning his effort to combat homelessness in the city.
Along with the sit-lie ban, the enforcement of stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances has been considered an integral part of Caldwell’s strategy. The thinking is, the sweeps can help prod homeless people into shelters where they can receive needed services.
Despite the moratorium, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, the mayor’s spokesman, says Caldwell isn’t giving up entirely on the sweeps; in fact, the mayor is committed to continuing the enforcement throughout the city — and eventually in Kakaako again.
But the University of Hawaii released a study last month questioning Caldwell’s premise that the sweeps are effective in curbing homelessness.
Based on a survey of 70 homeless individuals at encampments in Aala Park, Kakaako and along Kapalama Canal, the study found that the sweeps made about 20 percent of the respondents less likely to move to a shelter, and another 68 percent said the sweeps had no effect on the likelihood that they would go to a shelter.
“It was foreseeable that these ordinances would not make people disappear, and, even if they all went to shelters, we knew that there would not be enough beds,” Lee said.
“Without enforcement and sweeps, the homeless become more entrenched and territorial as they claim ownership to the street.” — Rep. Tom Brower
For his part, Sasamura says the sweeps aren’t really intended to be a solution to homelessness.
“Rather, it is intended to keep sidewalks and city property open for the public,” Sasamura said. “While service providers such as (the Institute for Human Services) have supported the city’s enforcement efforts as a way to help them encourage those with mental health and drug abuse problems to enter shelters and get access to services, ultimately their purpose is public safety.”
Still, state Rep. Tom Brower, who got into an altercation with some Kakaako teens last month, says the sweeps have merit.
“The sweeps have value even if people come right back,” Brower said. “Without enforcement and sweeps, the homeless become more entrenched and territorial as they claim ownership to the street. We need to regularly send a message that, even though they live there — which we allow them to do so out of compassion — they must share the space with the public.”
But Scott Morishige, executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED, says homeless encampments are continuing to spring up all over Oahu, and, to truly clear the sidewalks — and keep them cleared — in those areas, the broader issues need to be addressed first.
“We are starting to see a growing number of homeless encampments — not just in Kakaako and Kapalama, but also in Waipahu, Wahiawa, and other areas of town — because there are very limited housing resources available,” Morishige said. “Without understanding the barriers that homeless individuals face when they try to obtain housing and without putting time and resources toward addressing those barriers, (the sweeps) alone will not be effective.”