- Special Projects
It must have felt like a case of deja vu.
In the early hours of Tuesday, when the city’s maintenance crew arrived in Kakaako, it found a familiar scene: dozens of homeless people pushing their shopping carts and baby strollers full of their belongings, scurrying away from an impending sweep.
The scene was a reprise of what had transpired barely two months ago. Starting in September, the crew spent several weeks breaking up what was then the biggest homeless encampment in Honolulu.
By Monday night, the Kakaako encampment was building back up again.
About 25 tents and makeshift structures were set up on the sidewalks along Ilalo, Ohe and Olomehani streets — the old encampment’s densest area, which was once home to about 100 people.
Many of the new residents weren’t really new — they once occupied the same streets before the old encampment was broken up.
During the past two months, they have been staying at two nearby parks — Kewalo Basin Park and Kakaako Waterfront Park — until state officials began enforcing the nighttime closure rules there last week, pushing them back to the Kakaako sidewalks.
That meant it was time for another city sweep.
By the time the crew arrived Tuesday morning, just past 6 a.m., the exodus was well underway.
A man who identified himself only as Gabriel and his girlfriend were among a few stragglers — they were inside their tent on Ohe Street, apparently sleeping. After all, dawn was still an hour away.
The crew rousted them, letting them know that the sweep was minutes away.
Grudgingly, the couple got up and began taking down their tent. It didn’t take them long to pack up, though; their other belongings had already been organized — some were neatly piled onto a shopping cart and baby stroller; others were stuffed inside two large plastic containers strapped to a hand truck.
Gabriel said he and his girlfriend have been homeless for five years. “They call us an ‘eyesore.’ I don’t understand why they need to do this to us. This is all we got,” he said.
After a few minutes, the couple began walking away, with no particular destination in mind: “Just away from here,” Gabriel said.
Meanwhile, the crew was further down on Ohe Street, checking on other stragglers.
After about 30 minutes, the crew members were back on the trucks, having finished their rounds. They went on to spend the rest of the morning picking up cardboard boxes and other trash strewn all over the sidewalks and tossing them into a dump truck.
Under a small banyan tree on Ohe Street, the crew members came across a backpack, wooden woven mat and stereo equipment inside a broken shopping cart. They were careful not to throw them out; instead, they stored them inside a green plastic bin and wrote up a “storage and disposal notice” — as required under the sidewalk nuisance ordinance.
On Olomehani Street, the crew members did the same with two tents and a tarp they found left unattended.
As the crew worked, about a dozen people were waiting on a land adjacent to Olomehani Street — state property managed by the Hawaii Community Development Authority. They had placed shopping carts full of their belongings — 15 of them in all — on the land, knowing that the crew wasn’t able to touch them.
A block away, about two dozen people were deploying the same tactic: Their belongings were placed on the periphery of the Kakaako Makai Gateway Park, which sits along Ohe Street. When the sun came up, they began moving their shopping carts inside the park. By then, they knew that the park was open to the public, safe from city sweep.
To critics, the morning’s activities offer a perfect illustration of what they call a “cat-and-mouse game.”
“It really doesn’t seem like it’s helping, does it? It’s just another good example of why the sweeps are not a worthwhile activity to engage in. Even the short-term benefits don’t seem to be there at this point — it’s just a matter of hours that people return to where they were,” said Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “It almost seems like a tennis match, going back and forth.”
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell, declined to comment for this story.