If residents want to look at how government has failed them they should take the time to go have a look at the Kakaako Gateway parks.

The parks were supposed to be open, green areas for families to enjoy for picnics and outdoor games in the densely populated Kakaako neighborhood where high rises crammed together offer little room for recreation and respite from stress.

Instead, over the past decade the Gateway parks have become an entrenched homeless encampment with a fluctuating population that’s climbed as high as 300. Currently, it’s more than 100.

The Kakaako parks image as a hostile area was magnified on April 25 when a young mother waiting with her child in Kakaako Waterfront Park for the Children’s Discovery Center to open was attacked by two dogs owned by homeless campers.

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park with tents.
The homeless encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park is a perpetual problem. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu police cited the owners of the dogs for dangerous dog violations and the dogs are impounded at the Hawaiian Humane Society pending investigation.

Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu says since Jan. 1 police have responded to reports of 25 incidents involving dogs in the Kakaako parks and issued 10 citations for dangerous dogs in the Kakaako area. Yu says another 48 citations have been issued to homeless for violating various park rules.

People living in the illegal encampments continue to violate rules as they set up tents and keep dogs as pets below blue city signs that say “No Camping, No Tents. No Animals Allowed.”

The law-breaking has gone on for so long it starts to seem like it’s government sanctioned — until something ugly happens such as the dogs attacking young mother Brandy Bennett last month or the mob of Kakaako homeless teenagers, who in June of 2015 chased and beat up state Rep. Tom Brower in front of the Children’s Discovery Center.

Today, Brower says he is disappointed but not surprised that so little has changed in the Kakaako parks since he was body slammed and thrown to the ground by angry homeless youths. “Government leaders have been frozen into inaction because they don’t want to be perceived as lacking compassion for the homeless,” he says.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office says the mayor is as frustrated as the public by the lawlessness at Kakaako and is hoping by the end of this month for the city to take over ownership of the parks, which will give the city full authority to improve safety and sanitation in each of the parks.

The city hopes that cleaner, more attractive parks and a more robust city presence will entice the public back, which will help deter the homeless as well.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority, the agency currently in charge of the Kakaako parks for the state, lacks the expertise, money and staff to manage the parks.

HCDA’s board voted on May 2, 2018, to transfer ownership of 41 acres of Kakaako land to the city, including Olomehani Street, portions of Ahui and Ohe streets and four Kakaako parks: Kewalo Basin Park, Kakaako Mauka and Makai Gateway Parks and Kakaako Waterfront Park.

But now, more than a year later, the land transfer deal remains stalled as city and state lawyers continue to haggle over the details of the deed.

“The land transfer is a very complicated matter with an extensive amount of documentation required,” says Honolulu City and County communications director Andrew Pereira. “The city is working collaboratively with HCDA to execute this transfer as quickly as possible.”

In private, both the city and the state blame each other for the delays.

HCDA spokesman Garett Kamemoto says the transfer of the lands and roads to the city will for once and for all make the city responsible for the entire area. Since August, the city has had a right of entry document to come into the state-owned portion of Kakaako, but without full ownership, enforcement has been difficult.

Since the beginning of this year, the city has initiated 63 sweeps at Kakaako but the homeless remain entrenched, often moving out just before a sweep and coming back right after.

“Many of the individuals who live in the park know the park rules and how to circumvent them,” says HPD’s Yu. “At night when the park closes, there are individuals who move to the unimproved sidewalks and leave 36 inches of open space for pedestrians. When the park reopens, these individuals return to the park.”

HCDA calls the homeless jumping back and forth between the state-owned grassy park land and the city-owned sidewalks “hopscotching.” In November 2017, HCDA hired security guards from the company Block by Block to be on duty at Kakaako 24/7 to try to get the homeless out of the parks at night at a cost to taxpayers of $320,000 per year.

But the private guards have no arresting authority and can only verbally tell the homeless about the park rules rather than force them to comply. They can also issue citations to violators but so far none have been issued.

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park with UH Medical School the background.
Despite the presence of business and other entities, like the John A. Burns School of Medicine in the background here, homeless people return again and again to the Kakaako park. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state sheriff’s office, which used to provide enforcement against illegal camping in the Kakaako parks, backed off after the city got its right-of-entry permit in August to take over enforcement in the parks and now only helps as backup when requested by the city.

Next month, the Honolulu City Council is slated to vote on the mayor’s proposed budget, which includes $2.3 million for workers and gardening equipment to spruce up the Kakaako parks when the city takes over.

The city says it hopes that with cleaner, more attractive parks and a more robust city presence in the park, members of the public will start returning for recreation and by their increased activity make it less enticing for the homeless to remain entrenched in their settlements.

In addition, the city says it is considering setting up a new base yard in Kakaako for its Department of Facilities Maintenance, the agency responsible for homeless sweeps which will allow the agency to move out violators more quickly.

There have been so many previous failed attempts to evict law breakers from the Kakaako parks, Honolulu residents now can only wait and see how all this works out.

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