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They live on the best real estate in Hawaii, perched on cliffs above $10 million dollar oceanfront mansions on Diamond Head Road.
The homeless of Diamond Head pay no rent or property taxes but enjoy postcard ocean views and the balmiest weather in the islands.
Their tents and tarps are hidden from sight on the slopes of Diamond Head crater above the lighthouse. Or they are camped on perches they have carved into the steep sides of he crater just below the lighthouse.
The homeless campers’ comings and goings are difficult to detect as they duck in and out of the bushes off Diamond Head Road where the state has posted warning signs saying: “Area Closed. Do Not Go Beyond This Sign.”
But because they are largely out of sight, nobody complains much about them. And that’s the way they like it.
“It is nice here,” says Kelly Murphy.
Murphy has been camping out above the Diamond Head lighthouse for the last year and a half in a tent with her boyfriend Allan Tang and their dog Keawe.
Murphy graduated from Castle High School in 1999. She is vague about why she’s unemployed but very vocal about her distrust of homeless shelters.
“People get raped in shelters. There are bed bugs. They lock you in at night. They treat you like a criminal just because you are homeless. It is gross. Up here I feel safe,” she says.
I met Murphy and Tang when photographer Cory Lum and I hiked up a steep, dusty trail off Diamond Head Road, hoping to find homeless campers to interview.
We expected to be met with hostility but Murphy and Tang and every other homeless person we came across on Diamond Head was welcoming and polite.
The only thing that seemed to upset Tang when we arrived unannounced is that we hadn’t given him enough time to clean up for our visit.
The homeless we met at Diamond Head were all diligent about keeping their places tidy. In fact, that’s how they seemed to spend much of their time, either sleeping or doing housekeeping around their tents.
‘They don’t seem to mind us being up here as long as we don’t made a lot of rubbish,” says Murphy.
Homeless encampments at Diamond Head are a continuing issue for three different Hawaii government agencies: the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which is responsible for the Diamond Head State Monument; the City and Country Parks and Recreation Department that’s in charge of the makai slopes of Diamond Head, below the lighthouse, and the Board of Water Supply, which manages an active reservoir on four acres on the north side of Diamond Head above Collins and Kepa Streets. Each of these areas has attracted vagabond campers for decades,
The Division of State Parks of the DLNR has the largest area of responsibility. Its efforts to clear homeless off Diamond Head have currently come to a standstill while it works with Scott Morishige, the governor’s homeless coordinator, as the state develops protocols to help Hawaii’s homeless find shelter.
Morishige, as the state’s point person, is charged with collaborating with federal, state and city agencies and churches and private outreach agencies on all efforts to relocate Hawaii’s unsheltered residents into shelters and more permanent housing.
Morishige says he can’t comment on future operations but says the state is working with the DLNR on a process to relocate homeless at Diamond Head and other state parks.
“We want the action done in the right way so homeless don’t just more from one area to another. What we are trying to do is bring them into an appropriate level of care,” says Morishige.
State Parks Administrator Curt Cottrell told the Diamond Head Citizens’ Advisory Committee earlier this month that the Division of State Parks actions involving homeless campers is changing now that it is working closely with the state homeless coordinator.
Cottrell said up until recently the division conducted periodic sweeps on Diamond Head, first posting notices to tell the homeless they were illegally camped and then clearing out personal items and trash the homeless left behind.
But, says Cottrell, “Now we can’t just say, ‘Get out of Dodge!’ If we take the possessions of homeless, we have to store them. Before disposing of anything we must clearly delineate what is property and what is rubbish.”
Cottrell says the last time the Parks Division made a large scale sweep of the homeless encampments on Diamond Head was at the end of 2014. He says since then enforcement officers have been doing random patrols on Diamond Head, asking illegally camped people to leave.
“But the problem is it’s a temporary fix. They go somewhere else and come right back,” he says.
When I mention to Morishige that the homeless at Diamond Head we met seemed uninterested in being relocated to shelters or apartments, Morishige said he believes most homeless people, even the most hard-core homeless, want help “but the system may have failed them in the past.”
Bernadette Anderson Golden, a homeless woman we talked with on Diamond Head, voiced her thoughts on this succinctly. “Make me move and I will move back.”
Golden says she has been living on Diamond Head for eight years. She has made a home for herself and her husband Elija in an graffiti-covered Army bunker located beside of one of the many paths homeless have carved on the side of the crater.
Golden, 42, was born and raised in Hilo. She says she moved to Diamond Head after her Honolulu landlord jacked up her rent to $1,000 a month, which she was unable to afford on her salary as a nightclub dancer.
She says she is trying to save up enough money now to rent an apartment. She says she gets her food from the Hawaii Foodbank and from other friends who give her food they don’t want. “I am not choosy,” she says. Her water is drawn from spigots along he road.
She makes money recycling bottles and beverage containers, bringing in $20 to $40, depending on the size of the load.
Like other Diamond Head campers, she cleans her area every day, washing clothes, caring for her four dogs and hauling out trash. She shares the belief with other vagabonds that if they keep their areas clean they have a better chance of staying in place.
“I just want to be left alone. I don’t steal. I don’t lie. Come on. Just leave us alone,” she says.
State parks administrator Cottrell estimates there are 16 homeless people living on the flanks of Diamond Head above the lighthouse and more sleeping from time to time in the interpretive kiosk in the state’s new Fort Ruger Pathway.
But Diamond Head resident Clark Hatch says the number is probably much higher. Hatch says a more realistic count is 25 to 40 people living above the lighthouse.
Hatch keeps track because homeless campers frequently stop to thank him as he and a group of volunteers work every Wednesday to maintain a strand of naupaka plants the volunteers planted along Diamond Head Road many years ago to beautify the area.
Hatch says the homeless at Diamond Head are amazingly fit. “They have to be to climb up the steep trails to their tents. It’s is very difficult terrain.”
He says they are friendly but can be irritating when they take the caps off the sprinklers he installed to irrigate the naupaka but the homeless like to use for showers and drinking water.
Hatch’s homeless count does not include the vagabonds living on the makai side of Diamond Head Road below the Diamond Head lighthouse.
There appear to be about 20 homeless people on the ocean side. Most of them are camped up on cliffs above a section of the beach that was once known to attract nude sunbathers.
Michael Oliver says he has been living in his tent on the ocean side cliffs for two years. Oliver, 57, says is an ex-convict who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. He says he’s bipolar.
He is a friendly, hospitable man who says he would rather remain at Diamond Head than pay rent in Waikiki.
He says he has a benefactor who is a millionaire from the neighborhood who regularly brings him cookies and pizzas and large plastic bottles filled with frozen water.
Oliver says when the weather recently turned stormy, his benefactor’s wife brought him a new blue tarp for protection from the rain.
He says he spends his days napping or playing the Hawaiian edition of Monopoly with friends.
“I am always eager to buy the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the game.”
Oliver says the only thing that bothers him about his encampment is the smell of urine. He tries to urinate in bottles which he disposes of, yet he says the urine smell lingers near his area.
He says goodbye to us and warns us to be careful as we leave his tent, gingerly making our way down the steep, sliding soil of the slope.
The city says the last time it made a sweep on the makai side of Diamond Head was on June 12, 2015.
In an emailed statement, Ross Sasamura, the city’s facilities maintenance director, says that in that sweep workers collected four bags of possessions from the homeless that were put into storage along with a cubic yard of metals and 1.23 tons of trash.
Sasamura says the approximate cost to the city to for a day’s worth of work needed to conduct such an enforcement is $3,000. The enforcement team is six workers as well as another city employee to assist the homeless when they come in to reclaim their impounded property.
The city says homeless sweeps at Diamond Head are driven by complaints from neighbors and are not scheduled on a regular basis.
The closest neighbor to the homeless living above the beach at Diamond Head is the commander of the Fourteenth Coast Guard District whose residence is at the lighthouse.
Commander Gary Thomas (Ret.), husband of Coast Guard Rear Admiral Cari Thomas, the former 14th District commander, remembers giving a talk to 75 people gathered on the lawn of the Diamond Head lighthouse. He noticed his guests were distracted.
The partygoers had turned to watch as an uninvited guest, a homeless woman in a leopard print dress, climbed over the fence onto the lighthouse grounds, then ran up to the top of the lighthouse. A security guard chased after the woman, urging her to leave, which she did, but not before snatching a shell lei from the unattended reception table.
There is an interesting social order among the Diamond Head homeless. Campers on the mauka side above the lighthouse told me they do not like the homeless on the makai side. Bernadette Golden says people on the makai side steal.
And Michael Oliver, living homeless on the makai side, told me he doesn’t care for like homeless living on the backside of Diamond Head near Kapiolani Community College. He says they are mean.
Residents of Collins and Kepa streets near the college say until recently they were plagued by homeless dwellers that Oliver describes as unkind. The backside homeless were living by the Board of Water Supply’s Diamond Head 180 Reservoir on the crater above Monsarrat Avenue.
The homeless used the paved road to the reservoir for easy access to isolated camping areas on slopes beside the site Kapiolani Community College is now excavating for its new culinary school facility.
Collins Street resident Scott Ballentyne says, “The homeless up there came down to break into our houses. They broke into our cars. They trashed the neighborhood. They got in fights and were foul-mouthed. It was a huge feeling of insecurity for all of us.”
The board says the security gate cost about $5,000. Spokeswoman Tracy Burgo says BWS also plans to fence off the entire 4-acre property around the reservoir for an estimated $400,000.
“It was a hard-fought battle for us to get the gate, but now we don’t see homeless on our street anymore,” says Ballentyne, whose family has lived in this area for more than a hundred years.
The Board of Water Supply has succeeded in making its small area of responsibility free of homeless encampments by putting up the gate and following up with plans to fence off the area surrounding the reservoir.
But it would be impossible to try to keep homeless out of the entire 475 acres of the Diamond Head State Monument and the extensive ocean side cliffs below the lighthouse by using fencing. The area is too large and the terrain too difficult.
It makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to let the homeless remain in their carefully concealed hideouts above and below the Diamond Head lighthouse.
Nothing has worked in the past to stop them from coming back after they are kicked out.
“We aren’t bothering anyone,” says homeless camper Bernadette Golden.
But the state has a plan for Hawaii’s homeless which centers on delivering them care and getting them sheltered. And that plan is moving forward. Attempts to relocate the homeless at Diamond Head will eventually be a part of it.
State homeless coordinator Morishige says it is not an option to ignore homeless campers living in prohibited areas on the world-famous volcanic crater.
“State laws and rules must apply to all people whether they are homeless or not,” he says. “The existing rules, which make most of the Diamond Head State Monument off limits are there for a reason — to protect the health and safety of all members of our community. We can’t let one segment of the community defy the rules that are there for their own well being.”