A private contractor hired by the state on Wednesday hauled away tons of trash from illegal homeless camps on Hawaii’s iconic Diamond Head crater.
Diamond Head is recognized throughout the world as a symbol of a tourism and welcoming hospitality, but the famous volcanic crater has also in recent years become a place favored by as many as 70 homeless campers. They like its mild weather and closeness to the beach and many services available to them in Waikiki.
Steven Cordeira, a homeless camper who was moving out ahead of the cleanup crews, said, “We don’t want to go. We love it here. The beach is so nice. We have our puppy with us here.”
Cordeira , 63, sat by the side of Diamond Head Road with his possessions neatly packed in a black suitcase as well as canvas bags waiting for a friend to help him find a place to move.
Cordeira retired after many years of working for Desert Isle Beverages in Kapolei. He says he became homeless a year ago when he couldn’t make ends meet on with his monthly Social Security check.
He had been renting a room in Kapolei and was stretching his retirement money for living expenses and to help out his grandchildren.
Cordeira said he is not sure where he will settle next. “I am going to look around for a safe place. I don’t want to stay in a shelter where there are bed bugs and people who fight. Everyone is so nice here at Diamond Head.”
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources says it has been warning Diamond Head homeless campers for the last six months that they must remove their possessions and find other shelter.
In recent days, the number of illegal campers has been reduced to about 40.
DLNR chair Suzanne Case says the area is off limits because it’s not safe. The paved walking path in Diamond Head crater is the only public access allowed, she said.
Even though today’s sweep was a massive effort, there is always the lingering concern that the evicted homeless will be back soon to set up new camps on the slopes of the crater.
“We need to create an operation plan to deal with the reality that homeless are going to return,” said state parks administrator Curt Cottrell, who was in charge of the sweep. “We need to step up continuing enforcement. We have to try and work out a strategy. We can’t keep doing this. It is expensive and difficult.”
This is the third clean up of illegal homeless campers in less than three years at the Diamond Head State Monument.
The state tried to clear Diamond Head of illegal campers in July 2014 and September 2015. But many of the former campers returned and increasing numbers of new campers gradually joined them.
Neighbors remember the 2014 sweep as particularly dramatic because the Division of State Parks used a helicopter to remove piles of garbage that the homeless campers abandoned on some of the higher slopes of the crater.
Before Wednesday’s sweep, the state identified at least 40 homeless camps as well as rubbish piles left in camps that had already been abandoned.
T and M Environmental made the winning bid of $12,000 to do the clean up. The job is expected to last at least two days.
On Wednesday, crews hiked slowly up and down the steep, crumbling outer trails of Diamond Head to haul out heavy bags of debris. They removed debris that had been previously tagged as trash or identified by campers as possessions they no longer wanted.
A DLNR worker guided a drone to identify and photograph the areas that needed to be cleaned.
Some of the abandoned camps the crews encountered were filthy, piled high with trash including bicycle parts and human excrement. In one camp, a cooking pot was left behind still filled with rice and covered with flies.
Other camps such as the area that Steven Cordeira left behind were spotlessly clean with all personal possessions and trash removed and the dirt floors swept clean.
At another camping area — a bunker lived in by homeless camper Bernadette Anderson — workers hauled out enough bags of trash to fill an entire large roll-off bin.
A dozen DLNR enforcement officers participated in the sweep to make sure everyone was out before the clean up crews hiked up the slopes. They issued seven citations to campers for being in a “closed area.”
The outer slopes of Diamond Head are off limits to the public. Camping, erecting temporary and permanent houses and having pet animals are also violations.
Ryan “Big Al” Tiernan was one of the campers cited. Tiernan said he has been camping on Diamond Head for a year.
“My friends and I are not criminal losers,” he said. “There are three kinds of people living up here. Alcoholics and drug addicts, poor people like me and hardened criminals, people recently out of prison.”
Tiernan says it’s the criminals on Diamond Head that make life difficult for all the other peaceful campers.
During the past few months, outreach workers from the Institute for Human Services regularly hiked up the steep hills of the crater to encampments to offer the campers information about substance abuse and mental health treatment options as well as directions to shelters where they could move.
But many of the homeless campers have been reluctant to leave.
Tisha, a 45-year-old woman who wanted me to use only her first name, said, “It is very special here. It is a peaceful place. There is so much Hawaiian history here. It is where my ancestors lived.”
Tisha says she has been homeless for 17 years “by choice.”
She says she understands why the state wants them to leave but she wishes she could come back.
“Of course, I understand,” Tisha said. “They will always be moving us out of here when there are others here who break into cars and steal things. It draws a lot of attention to us. We don’t like the people who commit the crimes either.”
The state is in charge of the mauka outer slopes of Diamond Head above the Diamond Head Lighthouse where the sweep was conducted Wednesday.
On Friday, the city plans to conduct its own homeless sweep on the makai slopes of Diamond Head, an area under its jurisdiction as a city park.
City Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota says there are about a dozen homeless living illegally on the beachside slopes below Diamond Head Lighthouse.
Serota says the city will post notices at the homeless camps Thursday morning to give campers 24 hours notice to remove their possessions and vacate the area.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.