Under a scorching sun, Pedro “Pete” Fonseca III was making the rounds.
It was early Friday afternoon, and the thermometer was ticking past 90 degrees, but Fonseca showed no sign of discomfort as he strolled Ohe Street — the epicenter of Kakaako’s burgeoning homeless encampment, where he’s known as its unofficial “mayor.”
Clad in a neon-yellow sleeveless shirt covered in paint splatters, Fonseca was using the lunch break from his construction job to check in on fellow residents — part of his effort to help bring a semblance of law and order to the encampment.
“Out here, we look out for each other,” Fonseca said.
But this self-policing system couldn’t prevent the June 29 incident — when state Rep. Tom Brower, known for once taking a sledgehammer to 30 shopping carts used by homeless people, ended up in an emergency room after getting into an altercation with a handful of teens from the encampment.
The incident has since brought intense public scrutiny to the encampment — which has nearly tripled in size since late last year — and prompted the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to call for its demolition.
Fonseca was fatalistic about the possibility of a crackdown.
“To address these remaining dug-in encampments, we really need more housing.” — Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell
“It’s expected to happen. The only thing we’re waiting for is finding out when. Nobody here can do anything about it,” Fonseca said. “We know we’re not supposed to be here; everybody knows that. But most people here have nowhere else to go.”
So far, however, elected officials have been calling for restraint; even Brower himself rejected the notion of wholesale demolition of the encampment.
“I feel for them. They are human beings. I consider some my friends, and we should have areas set aside for people to camp,” Brower said at a press conference last week.
Such empathy for the plight of homeless people may help explain why there hasn’t been any crackdown in Kakaako, but the recent history of enforcement actions in the area suggests that there’s another reason: that city and state officials simply have no viable short-term options they can rely on to clear the encampment — and keep it cleared — without having new ones sprouting up elsewhere.
The number of tents set up by homeless people on Kakaako sidewalks near the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, the University of Hawaii medical school and the waterfront has seen a dramatic increase — from 62 in mid-September to 185 on June 29, according to the Hawaii Department of Health’s nursing branch, which has been tracking homeless encampments on Oahu.
The increase coincides with the enactment of the city’s “sit-lie” ban — based on a series of ordinances first passed in September by the Honolulu City Council to prohibit people from sitting or lying on the city’s busiest sidewalks.
The ban is part of what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption,” a strategy intended to prod homeless people into shelters where they can receive needed services. But, as Civil Beat has reported, it has pushed many of them into other parts of the city — such as Aala Park, the banks of Kapalama Canal and the sidewalks of Kakaako.
As a response, Caldwell has been deploying a crew from the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance five days a week to enforce the city’s sidewalk nuisance and stored property ordinances, but he’s declared a moratorium on their enforcement in Kakaako since January.
Part of the reason for the moratorium is Kakaako’s jurisdictional complexities: While the city controls the area’s streets and sidewalks, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Kamehameha Schools both own land there, and its zoning and planning is left up to the Hawaii Community Development Authority.
“It is very troubling. We have done enforcements in the past, but what happens is they just move onto other state property, stand there, let us clean everything up on the sidewalk, then we leave, and they move right back,” Caldwell told Hawaii News Now in May.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, the mayor’s spokesman, says enforcement actions will eventually resume in Kakaako, but one thing needs to be taken care of first: “There’s just a practical matter of … we don’t have somewhere for (homeless people) to go,” he said. “Our focus has been on the most visible areas in Waikiki and on Ala Moana Boulevard to keep the quality of life of residents as good as possible, but, to address these remaining dug-in encampments, we really need more housing.”
Caldwell’s latest plan to use a plot of vacant land on Sand Island to house up to 87 homeless people could help.
“I think this is the beginning to an answer to what you see not only in Kakaako, but in Kapalama and other concentrated areas,” Caldwell said at a Thursday press conference.
But Sand Island is no game-changer.
Its scale is modest; plans call for it to accommodate only 39 individuals and 24 couples at any given time — and no children, at least initially. That disqualifies a sizable portion of those living in Kakaako.
According to Scott Morishige, executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED, families with children made up nearly a third of all Kakaako households evaluated so far through the state’s intake assessment, known as the Vulnerability Index and Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool.
The Kakaako conundrum hasn’t escaped the attention of Gov. David Ige, who envisions a comprehensive plan that won’t end up being just a “band-aid approach” to homelessness, according to Rachael Wong, director of the Hawaii Department of Human Services.
“The governor is really committed to addressing homelessness, and this is a priority that we’re discussing across all departments — at the cabinet level — and really looking at how do we build an infrastructure to comprehensively address homelessness,” Wong said. “I can’t give specifics because we’re in the midst of it, but … the governor has spoken directly about Kakaako, the number of people who are living there, and that we need to address this.”
Former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle says the situation in Kakaako has been allowed to fester for so long that it now necessitates a drastic approach — just like the one he adopted when he oversaw the effort to clear out a large homeless encampment at Keaau Beach Park on the Waianae coast in 2011.
“What you do is you absolutely and unequivocally go out and tell people that, ‘Living here is no longer tolerated,’” Carlisle said. “This has nothing to do with ‘compassionate disruption,’ which sounds to me like a feeble measure.”
In fact, Carlisle says, it’s time to disregard the legal complications that limit the efforts to combat homelessness.
“What you do is you absolutely and unequivocally go out and tell people that, ‘Living here is no longer tolerated.’” — Peter Carlisle, former Honolulu mayor
“This is a golden opportunity for somebody to re-energize the effort to attack the absence of vagrancy laws, including test cases that go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary,” Carlisle said. “Don’t shy away from litigations. Don’t be afraid of lawsuits. And don’t take half-measures because they haven’t worked.”
But some argue that Carlisle’s take-no-prisoners approach exacerbates the problem.
“When you look at what happens when you only focus on an emergency response, you’ll see that it only gets us into a much worse situation,” said Jenny Lee, public policy director at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “The bottom line is, people are going to exist somewhere. We can’t force them out. We can’t make these people disappear.”
Morishige says the makeup of the Kakaako encampment has been changing so quickly in recent months that its needs will have to be assessed thoroughly before an effective solution can be devised.
“We need to really better understand the population that’s there right now before we even consider any type of action, whether offering new services in the area or looking at maybe trying to get the population to move somewhere else,” Morishige said. “Unless you really understand who’s there and what their unique needs are, we’ll end up doing something that isn’t going to be effective in the long run.”