There are two types of transients in Kakaako.
One type is the homeless, many of whom spend time in neighborhood parks during the day and move to other areas at night after the parks close. Some consider Kakaako home because of its relative safety and stability, despite the fact that their presence has led to city crackdowns, news headlines and lawsuits.
The other is the young professionals who move to the neighborhood for the convenience of having shops, restaurants and work close by. They tend to move away quickly, though. Within a couple of years, many leave to start or expand their families, among other reasons.
But transient is one way to describe the up-and-coming Honolulu neighborhood as it is today. Along its north and east borders of King and Piikoi streets, single-family houses and low-rise apartments are in abundance. But along its south and west borders of Ala Moana Boulevard and Punchbowl Street, high-rise residential buildings and plenty of shops and eateries are starting to shape the neighborhood.
In fact, the area and its population are always growing, so it’s hard to estimate the number of residents currently living there. Dexter Sensui, a resident of the area for the past eight years and captain of the Sheridan Citizen’s Patrol, guessed the number may exceed 20,000, with all the residential towers that have gone up in recent years. The state has said there were nearly 11,000 people living in Kakaako as of 2010.
In the 1970s, the state identified Kakaako as a neighborhood that could be really valuable if it was redeveloped. The Legislature created the Hawaii Community Development Authority to help plan how to use the area. Ever since then, the neighborhood has been a target for developers and has attracted large organizations like Kamehameha Schools and companies like The Howard Hughes Corp., which are creating their own communities.
Homelessness has been a major issue in Kakaako for years. It’s been the subject of countless news stories and continues to be an ongoing source of tension. Last year, sweeps by the city at a homeless encampment in and near Kakaako Waterfront Park led to a lawsuit that could cost the city nearly $1 million.
Some of those without permanent housing consider Kakaako to be their home.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a woman who only gave her name as Khatt was sitting in the shade outside the Ewa restroom facility at Kakaako Waterfront Park. About five feet away lay her belongings: some blankets, pillows and clothes.
“Everybody says we’re homeless,” she said. “But we don’t consider ourself homeless. We consider ourself houseless. Honestly, home is wherever we make it home. We just don’t have a house.”
Khatt said she has lived in the park on and off between stays at shelters for about two years. She said the clearing of the encampment separated families and made the homeless spread out to other areas.
“Everywhere you go, you’re going to see a couple of people, a couple of tents, a couple of set ups, a couple of people sleeping on the sidewalk. But before that, these things didn’t happen,” she said. “There was hardly any set ups. Everybody was in here.”
During the day, some homeless return to the waterfront park. She said it’s one of the safest parks, where anyone who needs a place to sleep is welcome and residents don’t judge each other. However, at night, everyone packs up and moves.
Two days earlier, Larry Hurst, the manager of a Kakaako condo building, took Civil Beat along during an evening citizen’s patrol in Kakaako. Hurst, who also serves as a vice chairman of the Ala Moana/Kakaako Neighborhood Board, pointed toward a stretch of sidewalk where he said the homeless have started to set up.
“In a couple of hours all that block of King Street will be full on both sides. Didn’t used to be like that,” he said. “A lot of them, from just minding my building, they’re always just roaming around. I mean every day, every day I’m keeping someone from making camp.”
During an interview at his office, state Rep. Scott Saiki, whose district includes the area, said that homelessness in Kakaako “kind of became a crisis” last year when 300 people lived in tents in and near the waterfront park.
“It became a public safety issue because there was a lot of crime, drugs, prostitution,” he said. “There were even assaults occurring.”
Since the encampment was broken up, the state has been unsuccessful in getting the homeless into shelters, Saiki said. He speculated that mental illness and a resistance to following a shelter’s rules prevented the state from achieving its goal.
The homeless aren’t the only ones who are temporary in Kakaako. Saiki said a lot of young couples move out of the area when they start having children. Based on voter registration data, he estimated the turnover is about 30 percent in a two-year period.
Kakaako resident Teri Inoue said there are multiple factors that drive people away from the neighborhood sooner or later.
“I think eventually if you want to own a house, you would have to move outside of town, because affordability is not there. Not just affordability but there isn’t opportunity to get a house, also,” Inoue said.
Her boyfriend, TJ Gonsalves, agreed.
“You got to move to like Ewa, Kapolei – you get all the affordable house in Hawaii,” he said.
The couple were walking hand-in-hand on an afternoon in September around Kamehameha Schools’ SALT along Auahi Street. SALT occupies a city block and is filled with places to eat and shop.
Inoue and Gonsalves moved into the neighborhood about a year ago, and the convenience is what drew them to it. They talked about how the area is centrally located with easy access to Ala Moana Center, the shops at Ward Village, hospitals and restaurants.
As long as they can afford to live in area, they don’t plan on leaving any time soon.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Sharissa Chun, 48, was walking her 9-month-old dog. She just moved into the neighborhood in April with her husband and daughter. She said Kakaako’s younger, fresh vibe makes it unique.
“Just everything that’s been going on with Kakaako, there’s definitely an appreciation,” she said. “It’s the hot spot of Oahu currently. Up and coming.”
Like Gonsalves and Inoue, she said she enjoys the area’s proximity to the beach, shops and places to eat. She’s a realtor who works from home and sells property on both Oahu and Maui. But with her new location, she has the option to walk to her company’s nearby office.
Although she’s new to the neighborhood, she doesn’t agree that young professionals tend to move away after a short stay. She estimated that 90 percent of the people in her building own the units they live in, with many being in their mid-30s to 60s.
Jim Hayes, 66, owner of Tropical Blends, a surf shop on Pohukaina Street, says when he was a kid, Kakaako was the place to go to get into trouble. He grew up near Punchbowl, but Kakaako was his backyard.
“This was always the wild, wild west,” he said.
“This was always where there were no rules. It was just do whatever you wanted kind of thing. And it seemed like all of the funky, little businesses down here. But this area, Kakaako, has always been, you know, ‘Let’s go spray graffiti. Let’s go ride our bikes through all the mud puddles,'” Hayes said.
Back then, it was an industrial area with surf shops and plate lunch establishments.
Before Kakaako was zoned for industrial, residential and commercial uses, the area was filled with fishing villages, fishponds and salt ponds. In fact, Ala Moana Boulevard used to be where the shoreline was, said Aron Dote, a spokesperson for Kamehameha Schools.
Kamehameha Schools, which owns 17 percent of the land in the district, is developing nine blocks along the Ewa end of the district to create a community called Our Kakaako. The plan is to build an open, walkable neighborhood that can be used for residences, shops and restaurants.
“Kakaako has a long, extended history, and it extends from pre-contact times to our industrial times to our urban times, and what a lot of people don’t really know is that the land itself is a very unique and it’s always been a central place for people to gather,” Dote said.
State Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, who represents Kakaako, said the area provides the opportunity to envision the urban lifestyle and build it.
“For Kakaako, the excitement is that it is the most vibrant growth we’ll see in our lifetime,” he said. “So as opposed to Waikiki, urban Kakaako will serve it’s purpose as more of a residential-type of community.”
However, as Kakaako continues to be developed, Galuteria said he hopes it will result in a balanced community.
“So you have young couples that want to come to work, you have families, you have kids running around, you have kupuna, walking around, and then of course, you’re going to have need for some visitor investments too, obviously,” he said.