- Special Projects
When Lavina Aina returned after a month of recovering from knee replacement surgery at Tutu Bert’s Homes, a medical respite home for homeless people, she checked on her neighbors.
Aina is known as “Aunty Vina” and lives in the tent closest to the canoe hale alongside Kalanianaole Highway just outside Waimanalo Beach Park. Hers is one of a long line of tents — 21 on Monday — that have sprung up on the roadside since the city has been sweeping homeless people away from the nearby parkland.
She’s been living in a tent in the park or along the road since 2003. She was “born and raised in Waimanalo,” she says, “and choose to live here.”
It was here, she said, that she found God. Driven by her faith, she took it upon herself to “take care of the people.”
And in fact these campers are better taken care of than most homeless people on Oahu. Church groups and nearby residents provide food, supplies and services like washing their clothes.
That’s because many of them are longtime Waimanalo residents, said Eva deMotta, secretary of the parish staff at St. George Catholic Church. The church provides what’s known as the Waimanalo Food Outreach Ministry. Every Tuesday and Thursday, church members bring food and companionship to the residents of the encampment.
“It’s not like town,” Aina said.
Perhaps because of the community assistance, she said the homeless people for the most part stay quiet and out of trouble.
She said she scolds her neighbors when they leave a mess around their tents. One day shortly after her return, she looked at the tents and said, “Is that an eyesore for you? Because it is for me.”
Aina said she also does what she can to minimize disturbances and prevent complaints that could lead to harsher regulations or the residents getting forced from their roadside perch.
“A lot of them currently there have always been there,” said Kukana Kama-Toth, longtime friend of Aina and a member of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board.
The line of roadside tents grew in recent months after Honolulu officials cracked down on people camping in Waimanalo Beach Park without the required permits. Though the park land is owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, it is serviced by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreations.
A no-camping rule enforced on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the park means that for two days out of the week, homeless campers have to relocate.
The land between the edge of the park and the highway is state property.
“They’re out on the highway because they don’t get bothered there,” said Kama-Toth.
Regulating safety and health on the streets is a “multi-agency effort,” said Timothy Sakahara, public information officer for the state Department of Transportation. While the stretch of highway is within the DOT’s jurisdiction, homeless sweeps rarely happen there.
That may be because Waimanalo residents are looking out for the tent-dwellers, some of whom are relatives and friends, said Kama-Toth.
There are the “homeless” and the “houseless” in Waimanalo, Kama-Toth said. The houseless are Native Hawaiians, some of whom have jobs and families and have lived in the community for years. The homeless are from other communities who found refuge in Waimanalo.
Some homeless people have moved to Waimanalo because the sit-lie ban prohibited people from sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in areas like Waikiki.
More than 90 percent of homeless people in Waimanalo are from there and have been homeless for more than two years, said Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations for the Institute for Human Services.
Most suffer from generational poverty, some are dealing with substance abuse and some are unaccompanied minors, he said.
Sometimes, fights break out between recently arrived homeless people and the long-timers of Waimanalo. Most homeless people settle by the beaches, but some are reported in the backstreets of the neighborhoods.
Community members who barbecue and swim at the beach park say they have concerns.
“A lot of the residents dislike what they see cause, yeah, it’s an eyesore. But, a lot of the residents feel for them also. Where else are they supposed to go?” Kama-Toth said.
Cars, buses and mopeds zoom down the highway at all hours.
“You get used to it,” said Erskin Olsen, one of the tent-dwellers. “It comes with the territory. But it is kind of dangerous being out there because it’s so close to the road.”
Olsen has been among the Waimanalo homeless for about 12 years. He used to camp out in the beach park when permits were free. Outreach workers offered him a housing in town, but he wants to stay in Waimanalo, the country. So, he gambles with traffic: “You’ve to say your prayers, yeah?”
Still, Olsen considers himself “blessed.”
He’s got friends both in homes and in tents who offer him rides to town if he needs to go. IHS bought him a bus pass and he gets hot meals throughout the week.
“Everyone shares so much aloha,” Olsen said.
The state granted IHS the homeless outreach services contract for the Waimanalo area in February.
Before that, Waikiki Health sent medical service vans to the area. But it was responsible for providing outreach services to the homeless islandwide. Now, the city and state collaborate to provide services to the homeless in various communities.
“Up until this past year there wasn’t much consistency,” said Carvalho.
Aina agreed, saying, Waikiki Health Center “wasn’t doing their job.”
Waikiki Health workers would park on the other side of the park and sometimes homeless people didn’t even see them, Aina said.
“They hadn’t been serviced in quite a long time,” Carvalho said.
A Waikiki Health spokeswoman declined to comment.
Data collection and trust between outreach workers and the homeless have been nearly nonexistent, so most of the homeless people are “service-resistant,” Carvalho said
Many are also “service-resistant” because they don’t want to be moved out of Waimanalo. Most services like drug rehabilitation and homeless shelters are elsewhere, and providers are “trying to pull all these people to the central Oahu area,” Kama-Toth said.
While institutions like the Waimanalo Health Center provide medical care for the homeless, more social work and case management services are needed, Kama-Toth said.
Realistically, moving people from the side of the road and into homes “could take years,” Carvalho said. “You measure success by going out frequently and gaining their trust.”
Aina figures that as long as the roadside campers keep it clean, “it’s all good” for now.