KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii Island — When Big Island officials cleared 68 people from a homeless encampment in Old Kona Airport Park in early August, Mayor Harry Kim thought it best to offer those displaced with a new home.

We’re not going to clean up a park to get the homeless out and all we do is shuffle them someplace else,” Kim said.

In three days, Lance Niimi, an executive assistant to the mayor, scrambled to create Camp Kikaha. On a stretch of concrete in an industrial part of Kailua-Kona, county officials set up portable toilets, a shower, and canopy tents. In the weeks following the sweep, about 30 people set up tents at the site.

The location, next to a homeless shelter and transitional housing units, is temporary. Mayor Kim wants to relocate the encampment to 5 acres of state-owned land 3 miles from Kailua-Kona.

He envisions the legal encampment accommodating up to 100 people.

Soniya Soares at Hale Halawai Park in Kailua Kona shares her opinion about moving the homeless out to industrial area/Kealekehe parcel near the high school.
Sonia Soares grew up in Kona but became homeless after her parents died. She’s worried county officials are shooing homeless away from the business district into an uninhabitable industrial area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And Kim aims to create large “safe zones” in towns across the island.

“This is only Kona. We still have to do Hilo and Puna,” Niimi said. “There are so many other areas that maybe (are) not as visible but there are a lot of homeless.”

January’s point in time count found 953 homeless people live on Hawaii Island, with 71 percent of those not residing in shelters or other transitional housing. 

Police, who now ticket people for camping on the city’s sidewalks and in parks, don’t fine people camped within Camp Kikaha’s 90-foot diameter. A 24-hour security guard handles conflicts that might arise among the camp’s residents. Doctors come to the camp to treat wounds and do free HIV/AIDS tests, and those camped there can get lunch at a resource center on the same property. 

Legal encampments for the homeless are becoming more popular across the country, despite criticism from the federal government and some advocacy groups.  

 Proponents say the encampments offer a secure area with access to social services.

“What really Camp Kikaha is in essence is a shelter without walls,” said Scott Morishige, who praised the Big Island camp for its proximity to Hope Services’ homeless resource center.

But there are plenty of critics of the project.

Residents of a Hawaiian Home Lands community near the proposed site don’t want the encampment in their backyard, Niimi said. And Village 9 is a good distance from Kailua-Kona, raising concerns that the camp will be too far from jobs and services like medical care. 

“You’re going to have all the Hawaiian people in one area, you’re going to have all the homeless in one area” said Sonia Soares, who grew up in Kailua-Kona and now lives on the streets.

Kona resident Alii Keanaaina, whose cousin lived at Old Kona Airport Park, added, “If you’re gonna put them in a lava field you’ve got to plant some trees and have facilities.”

Honolulu Dismantled Its Tent City

In 1990, Honolulu city officials erected a huge, 16-family tent for homeless people in Aala Park. They also allowed camping in the downtown park.

Seven months after the tent went up, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that of the 54 families that had lived in the big tent, most moved on to transitional shelters or permanent housing.   

Other articles painted a darker picture at Aala Park: used needles littered the ground, one man stabbed another in a dispute over a sleeping spot, and a group of teenagers whose families lived in the camp led a crime spree in the area.

Within three years, city officials dismantled the tent city and evicted campers.

Still, some state lawmakers seem keen to retry Oahu’s safe zone experiment. This year, the Legislature passed a bill giving the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness $25,000 to study safe zones.

Critics of safe zones, including the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, argue public money is better spent on permanent housing.

“My biggest concern is that it becomes accepted that we have these shanty towns existing around our towns and cities,” said Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the law center. “And we shouldn’t accept that in America, we have the resources.”

Safe zones fail, critics say, when people settle in legal encampments while elected officials use the camps as an excuse to criminalize homelessness elsewhere.

“Putting us out of sight and out of mind,” said Bonnie McIver, who lives in Camp Kikaha.

But Kamehameha Kane prefers Camp Kikaha to staying at the old airport park where “it was hot, harsh and it wasn’t organized.”

The Prototype

County officials are still deciding what Village 9 will look like, and hope to deliver a plan to the county council for approval by December.

The camp may offer a parking lot where people can live in their cars without being ticketed, which normally carries a $250 fine, said Mitchell Kanehailua, an assistant chief at the Hawaii Police Department.

Hale Kikaha resident Kamehameha interviewed on his cot that he sleeps on under tarp/tent. Kailua Kona, Hawaii.
Kamehameha Kane on his cot at Camp Kikaha outside Kailua-Kona. He said he prefers living there to an earlier homeless encampment where it was “hot” and “harsh.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Most likely the camp will provide a place for people to pitch their tents under large canopies.

Niimi is also looking at igloo-shaped shelters that he said could serve as permanent housing. But at $7,500 to $12,500 per structure, the shelters might be too pricey for the county’s budget.

County officials are already alarmed at the cost of running Camp Kikaha, the prototype for Village 9.

Camp Kikhaha cost just $2,000 to set up, but runs up a monthly tab of more than $23,000 to operate, Niimi said. That’s $905 per person each month for the 26 people living in the camp last Thursday.

Security, which runs about $15,000 per month, is the camp’s largest expense. 

Police are called daily to Camp Kikaha, mostly to break up fights. There have been five or six arrests since the camp opened two months ago, Kanehailua of the police department said.  

Hale Kikaha. Tents inside an old sewage treatment plant at Kailua Kona, Hawaii island.
About 30 people sleep within Camp Kikaha’s 90-foot diameter boundary. Resident Bonnie McIver said it’s hard to find privacy in the camp. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On a humid day in September, a group gathered in the shade under an awning of a building used by Hope Services.

“We can’t be hanging out here folks,” a Hope Services employee told the crowd before they dispersed.

Irritated by the interaction, Landa Hoopai, walked just outside the property and sat on a rock under a small palm tree.

“This place is just too much for us,” she said.

As guests on public land leased by Hope Services, Linda Vandervort, who manages Camp Kikaha, says rules are essential to keeping order on the 1-acre property shared by about 80 people, many of whom have drug abuse or mental health issues.

 But she said she’s trying to cut back on security.

Regulating a legal homeless encampment requires a delicate balance between enforcing rules and allowing residents to practice self governance, acknowledges Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“You want some element of security there so people feel safe,” he said. “But they shouldn’t feel like they’re in a jail camp.”

Unsafe Zones

There’s a growing sentiment among Kona’s homeless that the number of acceptable places to sleep are shrinking as enforcement increases.

For example, a series of trespassing tickets landed Peter Finnegan, a homeless man living in Kona, in jail for 30 days. He had been living at the old airport park.  

“Oh, you got a sleeping ticket,” Finnegan remembers a friend joking about his tickets.

Peter Finnegan at Hale Halawai Park in Kailua Kona shares his opinion about moving the homeless out to industrial area/Kealekehe parcel near the high school.
Peter Finnegan, a veteran, said he lost everything in a fire six years ago. He lived at Old Kona Airport Park before the sweep in August. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Village 9, local lawmakers say, will remedy that problem. As police clear out homeless encampments near town, people can relocate to the county’s safe zones.

Many national experts say that’s not the way to go about addressing homelessness. 

These are many reasons why a particular area might not accommodate the needs of a homeless person, Tars said. If a safe zone is too far from a person’s job, it’s not feasible to set up camp there. A victim of abuse might not feel safe at a site if the abuser lives there.

Issuing tickets for sleeping elsewhere will only hinder the path to permanent housing, said Katy Miller of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  

“Folks are having to address these criminal measures that are going to keep them from being able to afford rent,” she said.

Kanehailua of the Hawaii Police Department said he is worried the new camp will place a strain on law enforcement. Kona police routinely deal with situations more suited for social workers or mental health professionals, who are in short supply. 

Village 9 is “an idea. I don’t know if it’s a good one. It remains to be seen,” Kanehailua said. “It’s an attempt to try something.”

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