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The state is planning to evict homeless campers from more than 40 tent and tarp encampments on the slopes of the Diamond Head State Monument.
Nearby residents have urged the state to take action because they are concerned about fire hazards from the campers’ cooking stoves and other illegal activities on Diamond Head, including theft, vandalism and drug dealing.
“It’s reached a crisis level,” says Diamond Head resident Michelle Matson.
Matson says with no toilet facilities on the crater, increasing numbers of homeless people are creating a health hazard with human waste and trash. She also says the state is at increased liability from fires, like the brush fires that came close to homes on the crater’s northern slopes on March 29 and on May 23, 2015.
Curt Cottrell, administrator of the Division of State Parks, says “notices to vacate” were left at 32 homeless campsites on Diamond Head on Nov. 9 and Dec. 2 . And 11 campers on the crater’s slopes were cited for trespassing in a closed area.
Cottrell says anyone near his or her tent during the two sweeps was cited. But most campers were away at the time.
He estimates that more than 60 homeless people are living in tents and under tarps on the ridges above Diamond Head Road.
The Diamond Head State Monument is a closed area where camping is prohibited. So in some ways it is easier to evict violators than it is in city parks or on streets. But in other ways, it’s just as difficult because of an ACLU lawsuit that established that evictees be offered alternative housing options and that their property be stored for 30 to 45 days.
Cottrell says he is struggling to find a way to clear out the illegal campers without having to deal with long-term storage of their property and to determine how to keep them from returning,
He is waiting for guidance from the state on what to do next to evict the campers because he says many of them have ignored the order to vacate in 48 hours.
Joseph Kerr is one of the Diamond Head homeless people who received a citation in the recent sweeps for illegal camping.
Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum and I came across Kerr sleeping in a hammock in his tent when we hiked up Diamond Head on Friday.
Kerr told us he has been camping on Diamond Head for more than 20 years. “I tell them ‘you can kick me out but somebody else is going to come right back in,’” he says.
“We have been here so long, they are used to us now.” — Joseph Kerr, homeless camper, referring to the residential area below
Kerr says he has gone to court more than 10 times over the years for various violations, but he always returns to Diamond Head.
“I am Hawaiian,” he says. “This is Hawaiian land that the state is not using for any purpose. The state does not do anything for Hawaiians. Hawaiians have been forgotten.”
The 52-year-old grew up in Kapahulu and Nanakuli and graduated from Nanakuli High and Intermediate School. He says for a time he worked doing home repairs and house painting. But now he mostly surfs, recycles soda cans and bottles and goes to friends’ houses to play his ukulele. He also repairs bikes, usually for free, for homeless people living on the sides of the crater.
He is the de facto boss of the campers living near his tent, who he says are Hawaiians, orderly people, many with jobs.
Kerr says he does his best to come and go quietly, without generating notice.
“We try to control the trash by bagging it and taking it down the mountain. We try to stay out of sight as much as we can and to be good neighbors to the people living below on Diamond Head Road. We have been here so long, they are used to us now,” he says.
Kerr tells Cory and me if we want to help we can bring him boxes of large black trash bags to help the campers keep the crater clean.
Cottrell says some of the homeless like Kerr have been there for decades despite 13 signs posted on the makeshift trails warning that the area is off limits.
Cottrell says his key goal now is to clear out the rubbish, human waste and abandoned camping equipment building up on the iconic state monument. He says he was shocked by the amount of trash he saw on the recent sweeps.
“That’s what drives me crazy. People who move out and leave behind huge piles of discarded trash, “ he says.
Cottrell would like to proceed immediately with a large scale cleanup but he says there is a dilemma: “We can’t begin cleaning the area until the illegal campers are gone. And we can’t get them gone until we get directions from the governor’s homeless coordinator on how to get them to leave following the current legal protocols.”
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige says, “It’s an ongoing operation. We are not able to disclose all the details. I can only say we are still in the process of developing a long-term strategy. We want to make sure we are not just moving the individuals from one location to another, and that we can connect them to social services and housing options.”
“We want to make sure we respect the rights of the people and their property,” Morishige says.
“These guys are very efficient campers. They love camping.” — Curt Cottrell, administrator of the Division of State Parks
In the recent Diamond Head sweeps, Morishige says two campers were moved into permanent housing using rental vouchers available for homeless military veterans.
But many of the campers with whom I spoke, such as Kerr, say they have no interest getting rental housing assistance.
“These guys are very efficient campers. They love camping,” Cottrell says.
Some of the campsites Cory and I visited were meticulously clean and well stocked. At one tent where nobody was home the camper had created an organic lettuce garden and a cozy kitchen corner in a tent with a wooden shelf filled with half a dozen clean wine glasses and a French press for making coffee.
The camper had smoothed out the soil in front of the tent to make a lookout. We imagined how beautiful it must be to sit in a beach chair perched high on the lookout with a glass of wine, looking out over the vast Pacific Ocean to watch a sunset.
Other campsites were more squalid. Bernadette Michele Anderson, 43, has been living in a kiawe thicket in a historic military bunker on the lower slopes for close to a decade. She was cited in the recent sweeps
Cottrell says the state tried to protect the historic bunker where Anderson now lives by sealing off its doors and windows, but campers found a way to get back in by making a hole in the bunker’s roof.
When we visited Anderson she was consolidating piles of rubbish in front of the bunker. She says she’s been calling Board of Land and Natural Resources chairwoman Suzanne Case to try to persuade Case to let her remain in the bunker.
Cottrell has other plans. He’s considering filling up the bunker with rocks to close it off forever.
Anderson says if that happens, she will remove enough of the rocks to hollow out a small space for her to sleep.
Not all of the campers try hard to keep a low profile. Clark Hatch, the president of East Diamond Head Association, says a homeless camper on three different nights in November ripped out parts of a sprinkler system he had installed to irrigate the Muriel Flanders mini park on Diamond Head Road.
“The state can’t keep pushing back the issue as it has year after year.” — Michelle Matson, Diamond Head resident
“Water from the sprinklers was timed to go off at 1 a.m., which apparently was disturbing his sleep. He was living in the naupaka bushes behind the park. It cost us about $2,000 to repair the valves and the electrical timer, ” says Hatch.
In the past, when homeless campers on the state-controlled slopes of Diamond Head were evicted, they quickly moved to set up new encampments on the city-controlled land across the street on the beach side.
Morishige says the state is coordinating efforts with the city to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
John Silva, a retiree who comes to Diamond Head every morning to feed feral cats, says some of the homeless campers who were ordered to leave the upper slopes in 48 hours told him they have already moved over to the beach side to try to avoid more enforcement.
“We are just playing ping-pong with these folks,” says Cottrell, describing the way the homeless move back and forth to avoid more citations.
Morishige says, “Diamond Head is an example of an area that is not safe for people to camp in.”
The state has tried two times earlier to clear Diamond Head of illegal campers, in July 2014 and September 2015.
Brian Furuto, vice chancellor for administrative services at Kapiolani Community College, says KCC helped pay for part of both operations.
Furuto says the July 2014 sweep cost the state about $68,000.
He says in that sweep nine 40- foot long containers were filled up with trash from homeless camps, including 32 washing machines and clothes dryers and frames of 12 vehicles.
Furuto says their best guess was that the homeless were stripping the appliances and vehicles to sell the parts.
He says when construction began for the college’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific, the homeless moved out of the construction site.
But even after the homeless relocated elsewhere on the crater, he says vandalism and theft continued. Someone broke into the contractor’s storage shed and stole “some very pricey tools and equipment.”
Furuto says, “ I am fearful of what will happen when the culinary institute project gets turned over to us by the contractor. After we move into the new buildings, the homeless will return the next night and each night after to sleep under the new covered walkways. We don’t have funds to hire enough security guards to prevent that from happening.”
In the three years he has been at the college he says there have been three large brush fires on the Diamond Head slopes.
Cottrell says all options are on the table for a long-term solution to the illegal Diamond Head camping, including daily enforcement patrols, fencing off all the gulches where the homeless people’s trails originate and even cutting down all the kiawe trees where the campers now congregate.
Diamond Head resident Matson says she is hopeful that something will finally happen.
“The state can’t keep pushing back the issue as it has year after year,” she says. “It has to be remedied to eliminate risk to residents and visitors and the liability to the state.”