The Division of State Parks has launched a high-tech campaign to prevent homeless campers from returning to the Diamond Head State Monument.
The surveillance plan involves GPS maps and a newly purchased $2,000 drone to monitor more than 30 dirt platforms perched high on the crater’s slopes where people have erected tents despite getting kicked out again and again.
This is the first time any Hawaii state agency has used new surveillance technology to address homelessness.
If anyone is worried about privacy concerns with the drone hovering over encampments, it’s a non-issue, says Parks Division Administrator Curt Cottrell.
The Diamond Head homeless are on restricted state government land, camping illegally with no legitimate claim to privacy.
The idea is to fly the drone over Diamond Head slopes once a week to pinpoint exactly where homeless campers are returning. Afterward, the Parks Division will review the photos and dispatch Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officers to cite the violators.
This comes on the heels of the state’s three-day homeless sweep on Diamond Head that began March 22.
So far, eight returning campers have been cited.
“The beauty of having the drone’s pictures is we can quickly send staff to the exact areas where homeless have come back rather than having state workers continuously hiking up Diamond Head trails to where they think the homeless might be illegally camped,” Cottrell says.
To follow up on the recent sweep, Cottrell and drone operator Sean Newsome trekked four miles across the crater’s ridges above the Diamond Head lighthouse on March 31 to GPS map all the homeless residents’ secret homemade trails, their former encampments and their garbage dump sites. Their purpose was to provide more precise GPS coordinates for future drone flights.
They came upon garbage dumps that had gone undetected during the sweep, as well as four homeless campers who had returned. The four were given criminal citations ordering them to appear in court.
The citations were for being in a closed area, which is a petty misdemeanor carrying a $100 fine for a first offense.
Homeless outreach workers in the Diamond Head area say they appreciate the drones, but at least one service provider expressed concerns about the “Big Brother is watching” aspect of the surveillance flights.
Heather Lusk is the executive director of the CHOW Project, a nonprofit hired by the state to provide drug treatment outreach to the homeless at Diamond Head.
Lusk says drone surveillance photos will make it safer for CHOW Project outreach workers by letting them know in advance what kind of homeless situations they’ll find before they hike up into remote areas of the crater,
But she’s concerned that “from a homeless person’s perspective, a drone hovering over them to take pictures might be perceived as an invasion of privacy and make them more resistant to working with us as we try to guide them to much-needed services.”
Cottrell says it’s not about personal privacy.
“The drone is taking pictures of camp sites. The photos are not that clear. The drone is not dropping down to 10 feet off the ground to zero in on someone’s face. It is taking pictures of tarps and tents.”
Institute for Human Services community relations director Kimo Carvalho says the drone’s surveillance photos should increase safety, “especially when you consider the rough and dangerous terrain where the homeless camps are located on Diamond Head, the steep, rocky ridges and deep gullies. Going up there can be risky for the outreach workers. They might fall.”
Carvalho says the workers will have a better idea of what kind of safety and first aid equipment to take to the areas.
In the past, IHS workers have have stayed out of homeless settlements where the campers are ensconced in deep in the bush, he says.
During the statewide homeless count Jan. 23, IHS decided not to count the homeless in the bush at the back of Hawaii Kai out of concern that workers might get hurt walking into rough terrain or be confronted by hostile campers, Carvalho says.
The governor’s homeless coordinator, Scott Morishige, considers the drone flights a useful way to keep pressure on homeless people to prevent them from becoming too comfortable when illegally camped.
At one point, more than 80 campers had created settlements on Diamond Head, and some had been there more than 20 years.
“We need to have continuous follow up and continuous pressure in the area,” Morishige says. “We don’t want hardened encampments to develop again.”
People are less likely to repopulate the camps at Diamond Head “when there’s lot of outside activity going on, including drone flights,” he says.
Cottrell says the garbage dumps he and Newsome recently discovered will have to be removed, but he expects that cleanup to yield much less rubbish than the 90 cubic yards of trash that was hauled out during the three-day sweep.
T and M Environmental, the private company the state contracted for $12,000, hauled down from the slopes enough garbage in plastic bags to fill three 30-foot-long roll-off dumpsters. The refuse they removed included dirty clothes, kitchen equipment and 20-30 bicycle frames — plus human feces and plastic pails that had been filled with urine.
There are no public toilet facilities on the makai side of Diamond Head.
Cottrell says the drone’s camera provides photos of the makeshift living quarters, but “don’t let you know what they smell like.”
He does not foresee the drone being used for homeless surveillance at other state parks where the state has homeless problems, such as Sand Island and the grounds of Iolani Palace, because they are flat, open areas easily accessible by vehicles.
Cottrell expects the drone will be put to use for other kinds of work at state parks, including filming archaeological sites and monitoring flood-prone streams and rivers.
The drone and GPS technology for dealing with Hawaii’s growing homeless population are only part of the equation.
In the end, it will always take manpower to dismantle homeless camps and haul away the tons of trash left behind, Cottrell says.