The Legislature this week is expected to approve a $30 million project to divert Hawaii’s homeless to legal safe zones, three on Oahu and one each on Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai.
The legal homeless camps are to give people a place to shower, sleep in safety and have access to centralized social services. The hope is they will stabilize in the camps and become more willing to seek permanent housing.
In another new effort to address homelessness, city refuse workers and police on Monday for the first time took over from the state all responsibility for conducting homeless sweeps in Kakaako Waterfront Park, Kakaako Gateway Mauka and Makai parks and Kewalo Basin Park. This is pending the Hawaii Community Development Authority’s transfer of all the Kakaako parks to the city, which HCDA’s board could vote to approve as early as Wednesday.
The state’s safe zones and the city’s new Kakaako sweeps have merit and may spur homeless families with children to be more receptive to offers of shelter and permanent housing.
But I wonder if the initiatives will make any difference to the hardcore homeless, often single adults preferring to live by their own rules, sometimes far from crowds, and definitely not in any place like a safe zone or shelter where they would be squeezed together with a bunch of strangers.
A hardcore group of homeless in Kakaako has shown zero interest in getting housed. As soon as they are pushed out of Kakaako parks they return. And the homeless living on the side of Diamond Head are similarly resistant.
If there is any benefit to the sweeps, it is to the entrenched homeless.
State and city sweeps in Kakaako parks and on Diamond Head have become little more than janitorial events.
“Sweep” is a good description of the action. Workers clean out piles of trash and excrement left behind by the illegal campers, only to have the squatters quickly return to the same locations. If there is any benefit to the sweeps, it is to the entrenched homeless whose “swept” camps are made temporarily more tidy for resettlement,
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has long described the sweeps as “compassionate disruption.” The logic being that if the homeless are disrupted often enough, they’ll be be convinced to change their lifestyle.
But some of the hardcore homeless are so mentally ill they don’t even know they should come in from the cold, others are too drug-addled to care, and still others are vagabonds who prefer living without boundaries or rules.
Consider the latest of the many efforts to get squatters off Oahu’s iconic Diamond Head:
The Department of Land and Natural Resources and the city launched a coordinated sweep on Diamond Head last Thursday and Friday. On the mauka side of the crater above Diamond Head Road, the DLNR cleared out 26 homeless encampments inhabited by about 60 people. At the same time, the city cleared out another five encampments with eight homeless on the makai side of Diamond Head Road.
Hi Pro Solutions, a private contractor hired by the state for $24,000, hauled away the ragged and smelly tents and tarps as well as thousands of pounds of trash and a large amount of human excrement. By the time the company finished hauling out the trash, it had filled three 40-foot roll-off bins. The contractor also cleaned up four large homeless encampments on the northwest side of the crater by a Board of Water supply facility near Collins Street.
Company owner Kaleo Broad called the encampments by Collins Street “unbelievable, out of control, gross — like nobody had cleaned there ever.”
The city, using municipal refuse trucks, hauled out more than three and a half tons of debris from the oceanside cliffs of the crater, which is under city jurisdiction, as well as 11 cubic yards of metal trash. Another city vehicle hauled off one camper’s possessions to place them in storage.
The homeless were offered a variety of social services including shelter, but they rejected all offers of immediate help.
If this has a familiar ring, it’s because the state did a similar sweep on Diamond Head in March 2017. And the city did its own sweep of the makai side of Diamond Head in September 2017.
In past years, a homeless sweep of last weekʻs magnitude and visibility to cars passing by on Diamond Head would have generated extensive news coverage, but today such enforcements have become routine occurrences in public parks and on Oahu roadsides. What was once abnormal has become normal.
My friend Dina Jardine, driving toward Waikiki, saw the piles of refuse from the homeless camps piled up beside the road, waiting to be hauled off.
“Well I guess Diamond Head will be clean again at least for a day,” she said.
A reader of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with the pseudo name Kiragirl commented online about the Diamond Head sweep: “It is almost like free maid service and then they are allowed back to trash the place again. Reuse and repeat.”
A homeless woman I spoke with during last week’s Diamond Head sweep said she had been living on the crater for five years. She said she planned to return to her campsite as soon as the coast was clear. She said she found the sweeps helpful.
“I have acquired too many possessions. It will be a chance to start all over again. It’s liberating.”
She is 40 years old and identified herself as Isis Marshall.
There is weariness in the community and among government employees about entrenched nature of the hardcore homeless.
DLNR communications director Dan Dennison was resigned in his news release announcing this latest cleanup: “It’s believed many of the people who’ve lived on Diamond Head long-term will re-establish their camps in time.”
Diamond Head resident Scott Ballentyne says, “Itʻs like ho hum. We have become used to homelessness. But that’s not right. We really need to be shocked back into reality.”
Ballentyne lives on Collins Street, directly across from the homeless encampment by the Board of Water Supply facility that was swept last week.
“I wish they could do the sweeps every month,” Ballentyne says. “It’s going to be a never-ending process.”
Two days after sweeps above and below Diamond Head Road, some of the homeless had already returned to reinhabit camping sites on the mauka slopes above the lighthouse.
On Sunday, I counted five tents back on the makai side of the crater.
“They are incorrigible,” says State Parks administrator Curt Cottrell of the campers. “They are urban nomads. Short of sending armed guards up the side of the crater every night, we cannot stop the homeless from coming back. No amount of fencing would work. They would cut holes in the fences to climb through. These people like camping. They want to be by themselves. They are service-resistant.”
Cottrell says what rankles him most are the piles of garbage left behind.
“It is like they are trying to be as messy as possible. The amount of human waste at the camps really bothers me. They are disrespectful to the aina.”
The governor’s homeless coordinator, Scott Morishige, says the state has to keep trying to reach even the hardcore homeless.
“You never know when someone will want to change and accept services,” says Morishige. “It is not okay to give up on people in our community who have fallen on hard times. No one action will solve homelessness. We have to simultaneously try to go in five different directions to try. It is very complicated.”
Morishige says each month, 400 people exit homelessness and move into housing.
But Kimo Carvalho, communications director of the Institute for Human Services, says, “The real problem is more people are falling into homelessness than we are getting out.”
For the taxpayer, it will continue to mean more money spent on janitorial sweeps to temporarily disrupt the homeless and clean up their trash.
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