Some people, me included, would like to see the large homeless encampments disappear from Kakaako Waterfront and Kaako Makai Gateway parks.
There is no magic wand to wave to make that happen. The state homeless coordinator, Scott Morishige, says clearing the homeless out of one area is pointless because they just take up residence somewhere else where they are less visible to authorities and citizen-complainers.
That may be so, but I wish an effort were made to at least keep scarce park space available to regular residents, many of whom stay out of the Kakaako parks now because of the homeless.
The city Corporation Counsel and the state Attorney General’s Office currently are working out the details of a new plan that might recapture Kakaako for recreational use.
They are drafting a memorandum of understanding at the suggestion of Mayor Kirk Caldwell to allow the Honolulu Police Department and a city cleaning crew to conduct homeless sweeps in the state-owned parks and on state-owned land across Ala Moana Boulevard from the parks.
Until now, the homeless in the parks have outfoxed enforcement authorities by moving off the city-controlled roads and sidewalks whenever the city conducts its sweeps.
They protect their possessions by moving them onto the grassy lawns of the parks owned by the state, where the city lacks jurisdiction. And on certain nights, when the state conducts its own operations to prevent the homeless from camping after the parks’ closing time, the homeless pack up everything to move temporarily to the other side of Ala Moana Boulevard.
“They have a lot of ingenuity. They have found ways to keep their belongings mobile. They know just where to move,” says John Whalen. He is the board chairman of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the state agency that owns the parks.
The HCDA say its sweeps to clear the homeless out of its parks after closing hours cost $2,100 each time for a four-man cleaning crew and two videographers to document homeless possessions the crews collect to put into storage.
The new memorandum of understanding would allow the city to better assist the state as it struggles to prevent another long-term homeless encampment from developing in Kakaako.
Under a similar memorandum of understanding between the city and state last year, the city conducted a major sweep in the parks, clearing out nearly 300 homeless tent-dwellers. Some of them found rental apartments or moved into shelters. But others, mostly single campers, have come back to re-establish the settlement.
Whalen likens what is happening in the park now to a “Mad Max” movie scenario: “There is a certain kind of lawlessness, a breakdown in civilized behavior.”
Loretta Yajima, the board chair of the nearby Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, says, “We cannot afford to let the numbers of homeless in Kakaako come back to where they were before, when it took so long to get them out.”
Yajima has written to the state and the city warning of the health and safety issues because of the new homeless buildup. She says children coming to the museum are bitten by mosquitoes breeding in the standing pools of water by the homeless campers’ tents.
“We have to find a way to protect our children from being swarmed and bitten when they come to the center,” she says.
At Yajima’s request, a team from the Department of Health’s Vector Control Branch came to investigate April 8.
DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo says vector control found a number of adult mosquitoes at the Children’s Discovery Center.
Okubo says, “There is a possibility that the homeless encampment could be a breeding source but due to the construction of their ‘homes’ and their lifestyle it would be difficult to control mosquito breeding. Moving individuals and families out of the area is a solution.”
Yajima says the museum recently set up containers of mosquito-killing fish around the facility, but someone kicked over all the fish containers at night and the one container left standing was filled with human excrement.
The Health Department will be setting up its own traps to kill adult female mosquitoes as they come into the area to lay eggs.
University of Hawaii chancellor emeritus Virginia Hinshaw also has written to the governor, the City Council and HCDA with concerns about the health and safety of students attending the UH medical school since the homeless began returning in large numbers.
An April 8 count of the homeless by the Kalihi Palama Health Center outreach workers tallied about 100 people currently camped out in Kakaako Makai.
Morishige says 58 of the homeless people in the park are single individuals and there are nine family groups made up of about 40 people.
“They continue to be a challenge for outreach workers to help them find housing. Many of them have been homeless for a long time,” he says.
Their tents are clustered in Kakaako Makai Gateway Park at Cooke and Ilalo Streets fronted by Ala Moana Boulevard. And there are a few tents over in Waterfront Park.
Walking through the area Friday, I counted 76 tents. Some of the tent-dwellers had expanded their living space with sheets of cardboard. A few others had erected makeshift dining pavilions by their tents with portable tables sheltered by blue tarps.
Talatonu Tupuola, a 55-year-old homeless man, explained how they’ve managed to stay in the park for the long haul. He says the key is making their tent dwellings extremely portable.
He showed me two carts by his tent into which he says he can quickly toss his all his possessions, including his tent and tarps to wheel everything away when city or state teams make periodic sweeps.
When state sheriffs try to get them out of the parks after the 10 p.m. nightly closure, Tupuola says he and others make their way to the sidewalk fronting Office Max, where they sleep until they can come back into the park when it reopens at 6 a.m.
He says he is bipolar and claustrophobic, which is why he likes living out in the open.
Walking by the homeless encampment, you see wheeled platforms and shopping carts that make it easy to move when state sheriffs or city crews come in on a sweep, and easy to move everything back into the park quickly.
Whalen says the homeless have also found out how to get free electricity and water for their tent homesteads by tapping into the parks’ electricity and plant irrigation systems.
Historically, the long grassy lawns of the park now covered by homeless tents were often used for soccer practice and volleyball games.
“We need to re-establish a safe place where people want to come,” Whalen says. “And it is not safe when people are living in the park.”