Michelle Joy Brown smells like perfume, but you have to stand close to her to smell it. Stand a few feet from her and the piercing smell of trash wafting down Moanalua Stream from Keehi Transfer Station, a garbage dump, will overpower Brown’s perfume.
The trash smell has been a regular feature of her life for the quarter-century Brown has lived under the H1-Freeway Airport Viaduct. In that time, she’s watched a homeless encampment in the area balloon to about 180 people.
This week she’ll watch as state Department of Transportation officials clear the area of the homeless campers and their things, probably for good.
“It’s really not a safe place for people to be, those areas are meant to be restricted to all members of the public,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness. “Part of the goal is that the area is not only cleared but we’re also able to maintain this are going forward.”
The department last cleared the area in 2015.
One complicating factor is the number of people in the encampment living on boats or rafts, or using those to store and transport their possessions.
Brown and her boyfriend plan to pack what they can on their small boat Monday morning and head for Keehi Lagoon, then Sand Island. Other homeless living under the viaduct have similar plans.
State officials anticipated the use of boats, so they have authorized the state harbor police to block Moanalua Stream on both sides of the viaduct. The state prefers that people go into shelters rather than set up camp elsewhere.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources controls the part of the stream that’s not under the freeway. The Board of Land and Natural Resources voted to close the stream for the next 26 days.
“If these vessels do go out into the open waterway, they’ll be directed (back to shore),” said Tim Sakahara, a spokesman for HDOT.
The department is using $4 million earmarked this fiscal year to clear homeless encampments from under Oahu highways.
In January, then-DOT Director Ford Fuchigami said each sweep along Nimitz Highway can cost upward of $300,000 and can take a few days.
Things that are collected and not deemed trash will be stored for 30 days, Sakahara said.
The department previously used highway maintenance funds to clear out encampments and pulled highway workers off normal tasks, including fixing guardrails, to clear homeless encampments. The $4 million, which became available in July, allows the department to dedicate personnel and hire a contractor to sort, haul and store property.
“We started focusing on those areas of health and safety (concern),” including areas under the H1 freeway from Kahala to Kalihi and along Nimitz Highway to Pearl Harbor, Sakahara said.
Last week a social worker from the Institute for Human Services helped Joy Arakaki, who is living under the viaduct, fill out an application for Hale Mauliola. That’s a homeless shelter on Sand Island that accommodates up to 101 homeless individuals and couples.
“I’m so used to this life,” said Arakaki, who grew up in Kalihi and has been homeless with her boyfriend for 10 years.
Adult couples, who are mostly local people, make up the bulk of the population under the freeway, said IHS spokesman Kimo Carvahlo.
Outreach staff from IHS and three other agencies visited the encampment last week to inform the homeless of the upcoming sweep and connect them with services. Outreach workers were also sent out in boats to inform people of the stream closure starting Monday.
On Friday, after a week of outreach, 120 of the 180 people in the encampment remained. Five left for shelters and one had plans to begin a residential drug treatment program at Hina Mauka.
Among those who left, Morishige said some went to stay with friends or family.
When asked why he wouldn’t enter a shelter, John Johnson pointed to his two small dogs. Brown gave the same reason why she wasn’t interested in entering a shelter.
IHS staff regularly visited the encampment for three years until the growing population of dogs made the area unsafe for outreach workers, Carvahlo said.
One woman living under the freeway had 39 dogs, Morishige said last week.
Outreach efforts always precede sweeps of homeless areas, Morishige said.
The number of homeless people on Oahu isn’t declining. Between 2016 and 2017 the population rose slightly from 4,940 to 4,959.
Cleanup operations won’t solve the state’s homeless crisis, Johnson said, but they do stop people from illegally trespassing. What can be done to truly end homelessness?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Johnson said.
Across the street from the Airport Viaduct homeless encampment is an affordable housing complex being developed on state land that’s now a paintball field.
Once construction is complete, Kahauiki Village will include 153 one- to two-bedroom houses offered as permanent housing for up to 600 people.
Keeping the housing project safe was cited as one of several reasons for clearing out the encampment under the viaduct.
Rent for a two-bedroom at Kahauiki Village will be $900 per month and one-bedrooms go for $725 per month, utilities and Wi-Fi included. The homes are modeled after emergency homes built for victims of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and can be quickly assembled.
The project, the brainchild of businessman Duane Kurisu, is being developed under the aio Foundation, started by Kurisu. Volunteers began putting the homes together this month, with 30 units set to open by the end of the year.