You have to wonder how much destruction it will take before the state says, ”Wait a minute. We have to do a better job of protecting Iolani Palace.”
There have been 14 security breaches inside the historic building or on the palace grounds in the last decade.
Now about 30 homeless people hang out on the palace lawn. Many of them are harmless, but one tortures birds, another couple had sex in front of schoolchildren picnicking on the grounds, and another splattered blood all over the walls as she injected drugs in the palace visitors’ bathroom.
Iolani Palace is a beloved island treasure and the only official royal residence in the United States. It is a National Historic Landmark. If similar crimes continued at any royal palace in Europe, people would be furious.
And it’s doubtful that the overseers of any other royal residence would want to keep it open if authorities claimed they were powerless to prevent homeless people from sprawling all over its grounds.
When the state says there is nothing it can do to discourage homeless people from setting up housekeeping at the palace, you wonder why they are prevented from hanging out all day on the lawns of the Capitol or on the municipal building grounds.
Why does Iolani Palace have to take the hit?
The latest vandalism incident at the palace happened in daylight May 28. Authorities say Michael L. Aquino, 57, wielded a metal pipe to smash historic etched glass panes on three doors at the visitors’ entrance.
King David Kalakaua ordered the glass panels from England to be etched in San Francisco in time to be installed in the doors for the opening of the palace in 1882. The doors are appraised at $100,000 each. It will take about $39,000 to replace the three glass panels.
Friends of Iolani Palace Director Kippen de Alba Chu calls it the worst vandalism in the palace’s history.
He heads the non-profit organization responsible for the daily operations and maintenance of the palace.
In the past, vandals and intruders have walked away from their crimes with minor misdemeanor trespassing convictions, if any convictions at all.
This time was different. Attorney General Doug Chin acted quickly and decisively to secure a grand jury indictment of Aquino on charges of first-degree and second-degree criminal property damage,
Aquino also allegedly bashed in the glass on the entrance door to the state House chamber at the Capitol. Aquino, who listed no home address when arrested, has a rap sheet of felony and misdemeanor convictions spread over 33 years, including assault, promoting dangerous drugs and burglary.
“The cultural and historic significance of Iolani Palace to the people of Hawaii cannot be overstated,” said Chin in a written statement. “The State Capitol is a vital public building. Aquino will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.”
Friends of Iolani Palace president Robbie Alm said the organization is reviewing security measures to prevent future destruction.
“Over the years, there have been lots of suggestions about putting all kinds of barriers around the palace, and both the community and the Friends have rejected them,” Alm said. “As one young woman told me the next day, ‘What happened is very tragic but please don’t put the palace in prison. That would be wrong in so many ways.’ We agree.”
The organization employs nine private guards to protect the palace at all hours and is trying to hire two more.
But Chu said recruiting guards is difficult because they have to be state-certified, and there are not enough certified guards to meet the demand from private companies.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is responsible for law enforcement security on the palace grounds. It has no plans to beef up protection after the recent vandalism incident.
With only 34 enforcement officers responsible for policing all of Oahu, the DLNR said it lacks the manpower for regular patrols of the palace grounds.
The agency said it makes security sweeps through the palace grounds but only when an officer happens to be in the vicinity.
The state Department of Public Safety and the Honolulu Police Department have secondary jurisdiction for palace security.
“It has always been a problem for us, security and enforcement,” said Chu.
Besides repeated incidents of damage to the palace, there are the violent and unpredictable outbursts from some of the homeless people nearby.
Chu said they are at the palace every day at 6 a.m. when the gates open, and they remain there until 11 p.m. when the gates close.
Then they sleep, unhindered, on the grass or sidewalks right outside the gates.
Chu said Aquino was not a regular at the palace grounds, but he did speak with some of the regulars before he allegedly smashed the palace doors.
The homeless people told Chu said that Aquino smelled of alcohol and said he was upset by the recent death of his wife.
One of the homeless men I spoke with on the palace grounds Friday said the regulars are now “under a microscope” because of the actions of a “nut case.”
Chu says he allows homeless people to use the palace’s visitor bathroom, but some of them continue to defecate and urinate in the banyan tree roots and bushes and toss their used hypodermic needles on the ground.
He said a visitor came running out of the women’s bathroom recently, calling for help. There was blood splattered all over the walls from a homeless woman still inside, stabbing at her arm to find a vein to inject with drugs.
Workers had to close the bathroom all day to clean it, Chu said.
On another day, schoolchildren were picnicking on the lawn after a palace tour when their teacher had to hastily evacuate them when a homeless couple started having sex in front of them.
A palace security guard was stunned recently to come across five headless pigeons, an incident that angered many of the homeless people.
Chu said there are sometimes fights between the homeless regulars and newcomers who have been kicked out of Kakaako and Waikiki by state and city sweeps.
Chu worries most about the unpredictable behavior of some of the homeless when they are high or having mental breakdowns. He said two summers ago he had to call the police on three separate occasions when guards discovered bodies on the palace grounds.
“I didn’t get the coroner’s report on the three different dead people but they are believed to have died from drug overdoses,” Chu said. “The homeless poses a danger not just to themselves and the palace, but the staff, the guests, the visiting school groups, you name it,” he said.
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige said he is unable to conduct a homeless sweep or enforcement because the homeless at the palace have a right to be there when the grounds are open to the public each day from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m.
“We want to make sure not to infringe on people’s ability to access public space,” Morishige said. “We can’t assume everyone there is homeless.”
Alm put it this way: “We live in a free society and not a police state. And while it is very sad and tragic when there is damage to any special place, and our palace is one of the most special places in the world, she needs and wants to be shared with the world and with that comes risk.”
Morishige says the state has contracted homeless outreach specialists from Kalihi Palama Health Center to make regular visits to the palace grounds to advise the homeless of available health and housing services.
And he said the state has arranged for the Community Health Outreach Work to Prevent AIDS Project to hold a workshop for Iolani Palace staff members June 21 to teach them how to interact with the palace homeless and safely dispose of hypodermic needles.
Heather Lusk the executive director of the needle exchange group, said the organization recently conducted similar training for workers at the Hawaii State Library, next door to the palace.
To me, something is so wrong with this picture — museum curators and librarians needing to be trained to deal with spaced out druggies, helping them clean up their used hypodermic needles. What about someone getting serious about cleaning out the needle parks in the first place?
I am not holding out much hope. The state will probably throw up its hands and once again invoke the popular Hawaii bureaucratic mantra: “No can.”