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It is sad that it has taken so long for the state to admit its failure to prevent hard-core homeless campers from returning to state parks almost immediately after they have been evicted in expensive “sweeps.”
Law enforcers and state agencies have come up with all kinds of explanations to explain why vague criminal trespass laws have made it difficult for them to deal with entrenched campers.
But a new state trespass law that took effect July 1 clarifies that it’s a criminal offense for people to remain in parks after they close for the night or to set up homes on unimproved land such as Diamond Head or under highways.
Now, it’s time for the state government to act.
In a phone interview Friday, Gov. David Ige said he will request money in the next state budget for a new unit in the Sheriff’s Division dedicated solely to enforcing the new criminal trespass law on state land, including unfenced agricultural land, parks, highways, under viaducts and unimproved areas posted with no trespassing signs.
The issue finally reached a tipping point for the public with the infuriating news last week that three Kakaako public parks will be shut down indefinitely to repair damage done by 180 entrenched homeless campers — all of whom were evicted in a sweep Sunday night.
“It’s reached a point where we just can’t manage it, “ said Jesse Souki, executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority.
Five families numbering 32 people who were evicted Sunday agreed to seek shelter, according to the HCDA and state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige. The families all had children.
Many of the campers were the same ones who were evicted from Kakaako Waterfront Park two years ago in a sweep of about 300 homeless people, many of whom quickly returned.
In newspaper interviews, homeless people said they expect to come back to Kakaako after this current sweep.
That’s what has enraged law-abiding residents. The sense of entitlement of homeless people who seem to believe they have a special right to commandeer public land because “there is nowhere else for us to go.”
In a letter to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Mililani resident Dee Brock wrote, “I have a heart, believe me I have compassion. But to close off our parks, paid for by our taxes, because of illegal squatters at places like Kakaako Waterfront Park, is impossible to swallow.”
Equally miffed was Kate Paine, a Moiliili resident who bicycles past the Kakaako homeless encampments on her way to work.
Paine says, “The homeless say they have nowhere else to go but what about us? Where are we going to go when they just take over our parks and destroy them and leave behind rubbish? Do we have to tolerate that?”
The three parks closed for repairs are Kakaako Waterfront Park, Kakaako Gateway Park and Kewalo Basin Park.
The campers who cleared out of Waterfront Park on Sunday left behind exposed electrical wires they had tapped into to run their TVs and other appliances. And leaking water pipes from plumbing the campers vandalized in an attempt to run water to their tents. The resulting puddles close to exposed wires has creating an especially dangerous situation.
“People could get electrocuted. It is not safe for anyone here, not even the homeless,“ says John Whalen, chairman of the board of of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the state agency responsible for Kakaako.
Morishige says Hawaii’s new criminal trespass law is not intended to criminalize the homeless but to keep everyone safe, including the homeless. He testified to the Legislature that it is written to protect the constitutional rights of the homeless.
The law’s wording may discourage the American Civil Liberties Union from filing a lawsuit.
The HCDA estimates that repairing the damage to make the three Kakaako parks safe again will cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars.
The Honolulu Police Department seems to have kept popular city venues, including Kapiolani Park and Ala Moana Beach Park, relatively clear of homeless campers. But up until now the mission has been more elusive for state sheriffs in charge of enforcement in Kakaako’s state parks.
Public Safety Department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz says that in the past, state trespass laws did not allow sheriffs to issue criminal trespass citations to the homeless for simply refusing to leave a park after closing hours.
Schwartz says a city ordinance permits speedier criminal trespass enforcement for homeless violations without as much prior notice.
The new state law is expected to give sheriffs clear direction on when homeless campers can be cited for criminal trespass on state parkland.
Ige says the problem with the state’s homeless enforcement up until now is that it has been done on an ad hoc basis. The homeless know they can slip back after an enforcement because there’s been no regular follow-up.
“We have learned that the enforcement has to be consistent,” says the governor. “It must be a sustained effort.”
“The biggest challenge now is we don’t have people in the Sheriff’s Division whose primary job is the enforcement against illegal camping on state property,” Ige says. “The new group of employees will be responsible for enforcing criminal trespassing law on all state property, including highways and parks.”
He says the new enforcement unit will be trained to protect due-process rights in evicting campers from state property, including making sure social service agencies inform them of alternative housing options and having facilities ready in which to store property left behind.
He says the state has already started enforcing the new trespass law on property from Kakaako to the airport, which will give his administration a better idea of how many new sheriffs will be needed to enforce the law statewide.
“The goal will be to make sure that public places are kept open to all the members of the public and that they are kept safe from people breaking water pipes and sprinkler systems and plugging into electrical systems, those kinds of things,” says Ige.
The HCDA’s Souki says another part of the effort will be to make the Kakaako parks more attractive and enjoyable to attract more community events and activities so that the homeless don’t feel the waterfront area is wide open for their exclusive use.
“When there are a lot of activities in the parks, it will discourage homeless campers from coming in,” says HCDA chairman Whalen. “They don’t want a lot of eyes looking at them.”
Heavy community use at Kapiolani and Ala Moana parks, as well as consistent enforcement, have no doubt reduced the homeless numbers there.
Paine says people need to speak up in protest if the homeless situation in the parks once again gets out of hand. She wonders if in the past she and others have not been outspoken enough as they have watched Kakaako’s parks slowly deteriorate.
“I think we tend to just sit back and think we will be protected by the state or the city, which has not happened,” says Paine. “In the end, it comes down to us as individuals. You have to learn what you can. Get the facts and get involved.”