It was news that homeless advocates have been dreading for years: After more than a decade of letting people camp on undeveloped land near the Waianae Boat Harbor, the state is now moving forward with plans to clear Hawaii’s most well-established homeless community by May or June.
State officials announced their intention to relocate residents of the camp, known as Puuhonua O Waianae, at Tuesday’s Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board meeting, just weeks after saying publicly that fears in the community over an impending sweep were unfounded.
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige and Pua Aiu of the Department of Land and Natural Resources said at the meeting their goal is to transfer the property to the Department of Education for use as a marine education center.
“We are looking at a number of different options in order to try to find housing for the people there, including looking for available land,” Morishige told the neighborhood board. “Our goal is to try and transition individuals from that property by early June.”
Morishige and Aiu faced sharp criticism during the meeting from Waianae residents and neighborhood board members, who said the state is failing to take community needs into consideration and has not been transparent about its intentions.
“This just seems totally shady,” board member Ken Koike told Morishige and Aiu. “The whole thing, especially this being an election year, seems like really bad timing.”
Roughly 200 people currently live in tents and makeshift structures on state-owned land bordering the Waianae Boat Harbor.
The community is self-governed, and has been cited by state and local lawmakers in recent years as a potential model for homeless safe zones in other parts of the state. Last month, more than 500 people signed up for tours of the unique encampment during a community event organized by residents.
Many of the people living in Puuhonua, which means “sanctuary” in Hawaiian, have cycled in and out of homeless shelters. In Waianae, they have found a measure of stability that has allowed many to get back on their feet, says Twinkle Borge, the camp’s leader.
“The village is a safe and stable place to live,” Borge said at a press conference last month aimed at staving off a sweep. “We want to dialogue with people to make a decision about our future. We want to keep our ohana together as much as possible. We are open to exploring all options including relocation.”
Morshige’s office was meeting monthly with Borge and residents of the Waianae camp, but those meetings stopped sometime last year.
Borge said her community, which is now a registered nonprofit with the IRS, is scrambling to find another piece of land that it can move to. But she said six months to a year is a more practical timeline for relocating close to 200 people.
DLNR officials have long expressed concerns over the impact of the encampment on natural resources, including a rare shrimp found in the area.
Borge says she brought in a biologist to teach people in the camp how to protect the shrimp, after asking unsuccessfully for training from DLNR.
The agency is under a deadline to take action because its plan for the property hinges on federal funding and the land has to be cleared and restored before the state can apply for a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Morishige said.
Borge and her supporters say they’ve asked repeatedly for concrete details on the grant requirements, and are worried that other forces may be at play.
“We think it is possible that the timeline is driven by the upcoming primary election and not any federal grant requirements,” said Waianae resident and Puuhonua supporter James Pakele.
Aiu said the state wants to work with Borge to transition people into housing and avoid a sweep. But the state could close the property and begin enforcing criminal trespassing laws as early as May, it indicated in a timeline presented to legislators in a closed-door meeting Feb. 22, according to documents obtained by Civil Beat.
“I hope something will change,” Borge said. “I am worried. I’ve had many sleepless nights. I am experiencing a lot of anxieties.”
Morishige and Aiu were not on the agenda to speak at Tuesday’s neighborhood board meeting, a fact that that drew the ire of some board members and the other attendees.
The encampment has been an important issue in the community for more than 10 years, said Waianae resident and former state representative Jo Jordan. Community members should have been given notice that plans were going to be presented so they had an opportunity to comment.
“Our community does deserve that transparency,” Jordan said.
Morishige said he didn’t know until Feb. 28 — after the deadline for adding items to the meeting agenda — that they would be attending.
But addressing the neighborhood board was one of several steps that Morishige and Aiu outlined for clearing the land in a document distributed privately to state lawmakers Feb. 22, six days before the deadline to add items to the neighborhood board agenda.
Morishige said he will present plans for the property to the Board of Land and Natural Resources on March 23 for approval. The meeting is open to the public.
On Tuesday night, neighborhood board members asked Morishige and Aiu to return next month with a more formal presentation, and to delay the BLNR meeting until the Waianae community had more opportunity to weigh in.
“If this does go as as you folks are planning, just be prepared for the resistance of this community,” board member Kaukaohu Wahilani said. “Because this is gonna tear our community up big time.”
“The governor’s office and the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources continue to work with the members of the community on a solution to this long-standing issue,” Cindy McMillan, the communications director for Gov. David Ige, said in a written statement Wednesday. “At this point, we have nothing further to add to the information that was presented last night.”
Morishige did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward declined to comment.
On Feb. 14, Ward emailed a statement to Civil Beat stating that the agency had “no immediate plans to sweep the people.”
The statement went on:
Ward wrote that DLNR wants “to create a Marine Science Learning Center to include the unique ecosystem that exists on this property as well as nearshore marine ecosystems … This property has the potential to become a natural functioning teaching ecosystem that will provide educational and learning benefits for the Wai‘anae community and students statewide.”
It’s a vision that didn’t impress some neighborhood board members Tuesday night as they vowed to resist a sweep of the encampment if necessary.
“If they try to sweep, we should just show up and stop them,” board member Kellen Smith said.
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