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What happens when a treasured public gathering place becomes a hotbed of crime and vagrancy?
When it happened to Mauna Lahilahi Botanical Garden on Oahu’s Waianae Coast, a gutsy, bootstrap community group moved in, instituted a zero tolerance policy for criminal and unhealthy activity and reclaimed the county park from the brink of delinquency.
Of course, it wasn’t so easy. But when complaints to police and politicians did little to solve the problem, the park’s neighbors decided to shift their perspective.
Instead of begging for better law enforcement, they invested hundreds of hours to establish a neighborhood watch group and a monthly cleanup event series. They forged partnerships with the cops and county government, which facilitated green waste pickup and a homeless sweep.
Slowly, they squeezed out illicit activity and replaced it with wholesome recreation — fishing, hiking, swimming and picnicking.
There’s much work to be done to fully restore the park’s beauty. But a year after the neighbors took on responsibility for the park’s condition, families that had given up on the place are returning.
“We’re people that love our land,” said Ku’uleilani Samson, leader of this small band of neighbors. “And so to see something that is very close to our hearts and to our families turn into something that was so disgusting and disturbing, it was really discouraging.
“We had to do something more than cry and complain.”
At a time when the fabric of neighborhoods across the country is fraying, the Mauna Lahilahi story is an encouraging example of the public good that can be accomplished by strong communities.
Despite changes over time that might have isolated these neighbors, such as the near-loss of a common gathering place and an influx of vacation rentals, they managed to avoid social fragmentation. When blight encroached they bypassed the bureaucracy, taking ownership of the park to save it from seediness.
In the process, the neighbors discovered that the difficult, conflicting work of displacing homeless people can sometimes lead to happy endings.
The houses around Mauna Lahilahi are a mix of tattered 1950s construction and newer, larger homes. They are owned by working class families.
In a few cases, the land has more value than the buildings. A 2016 real estate listing for a property near the park included this disclosure: “Home has no value & property is being sold for land value only. Home to be sold as is, where is. Probably won’t qualify for long term mortgage due to condition of home — leaking roof/water damage and ground termites.”
A roadside park fringes this collection of single-family beach bungalows, as well as a resort condominium tower inhabited by mainland snowbirds.
Once, the park was the neighborhood jewel — a green peninsula of carefully manicured native flora rooted against a small, climbable mountain and, beyond that, sandy beach and sea.
Children learned to fish and swim here. They practiced hula on an ocean-facing floor of sand and rock. Whole families gathered to craft lei po’o from the hinahina plant’s silvery rosette leaves. When the sun slipped down into the sea, parents put on beach barbecues, reeling in a fresh catch for dinner.
The park is considered sacred to some people of Hawaiian ancestry. At the base of a sheer rock cliff stands an old fishing shrine and what appears to be a heiau (ancient temple), as well as other large rock shelters associated with early Hawaiian religious worship, agriculture and stone tool production. Dozens of petroglyphs dating to the 1600s are carved in rock faces, depicting geometric human figures and dogs.
The park’s pinnacle is a brown, bare rock peak, which rises abruptly out of the sea and, at a distance, appears to be an island. Locals call it the world’s smallest mountain.
Its demise was long coming. The botanical garden started dying off decades ago when it lost its caretaker and no one stepped in to water and weed. The homeless trickled in, which prompted the Board of Water Supply to shut off the irrigation system completely.
A pair of neighbors tried to save the last of the native plants, erecting a makeshift sprinkler system from old PVC pipes, steel pipes, garden hoses and plastic sprinkler heads.
Inevitably, running children would snag a foot under the piping and break the system apart. Slowly, the delicate hinahina and ilima succumbed to neglect and weeds.
That the park is still named after its former garden causes first-time visitors awful confusion. The landscape is now unremarkably carpeted with purple bougainvillea and dense thickets of kiawe and koa haole trees.
The county locked the park’s front gate in a move that proved largely symbolic. The lava rock wall that demarcates the park’s 11 acres is easily hopped over.
By late 2018, several dozen homeless people had piled in. They erected lavish encampments.
Some of the homeless stayed out of sight (struggling parents raising children, for example). Others made their presence unbearably obvious.
Startled awake by a blaring car horn, bleary-eyed residents would watch the drama unfold from bedroom windows. A car would pull up to the park gate. Then a woman, responding to the honk of the horn, would emerge from the park and slip into the vehicle. When it was over, she’d exit the car and retreat into darkness until, inevitably, a new customer would honk for service.
There were other disturbances: domestic violence, illicit drug deals, bicycle theft, car vandalism.
Paul Watanabe once saw a woman get punched out 20 yards from his front door. A substance abuse counselor, he said he tried to intervene but the guy who threw the punch wasn’t having it; he was high on drugs. Watanabe called 911.
“It was the least I could do,” he said. It was not unusual for Watanabe to call the police two or three times in one day.
Chuck Popken, a Navy veteran, could also be counted on to call the cops repeatedly. Sometimes, he said, an officer would drive over. But he wouldn’t necessarily get out of the police cruiser. When this happened, Popken said he’d redial dispatch and demand to speak to a supervisor.
“My 91-year-old mother-in-law was scared to death,” he said. “She’d go out to feed the birds and I’d say, ‘What’s that in your hand?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, that’s mace.’”
One day, Popken said he came home to find one of the park bums squatting on his lawn.
After that, he moved his mother-in-law and daughter out of the house, away from the anarchy. To defend his own sense of safety, Popken said he boobytrapped his yard.
“I actually was going to dig a trench and put spikes in front of my gate, but I thought, no, that’s getting too carried away,” he said. “But I rigged up some things that go bang and pop to scare people away.”
It was the fires that worried Francine Samson. When the park denizens near her house would fight, they’d light up each other’s camps. Her grandchildren would run to the rock wall that lassoes the park and watch unblinkingly, like trashy television.
“The kids used to say, ‘Tutu, they’re fighting again!’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, you guys get in the house!’” Samson said.
By early 2019, the neighbors were fed up. The park was barely recognizable from its prime three decades earlier when Francine Samson wed her husband Norman there under a lush, flowering canopy.
Finally, a leader emerged in the community.
Ku’u Samson, Francine Samson’s daughter, was tired of all the complaining. She was hellbent on creating a change.
So she assembled the neighbors and made this plea: If the government won’t fix up our park, she said, then it’s up to us to take the lead.
“It’s really simple,” said Francine Samson. “We came from this dirt. It falls on us to care for it.”
The neighbors began visiting every encampment to talk story.
What’s your name? Would you like help finding shelter or employment? Do you need mental health counseling or drug treatment?
The neighbors handed out resource pamphlets. They got to know the campers by name.
On this point they were firm: The park is a special place for local families to enjoy. Homelessness and crime will no longer be tolerated.
But they didn’t just kick them to the curb.
“We made relationships with the homeless,” explained Ku’u Samson, who wears her hair in a shiny black bun on top of her head. “They’ve got two eyes, two ears and a heart just like us. If we don’t see that in them, then they can’t see that in themselves.”
Some of the homeless moved into shelters. The homeless village known as Pu’uhonua o Waianae, adjacent to the Waianae Boat Harbor, which operates with government support, absorbed a few folks who agreed to abide by the rules of daily life there: Namely, no drug use. Others moved their precious few belongings to the next beach park down the coast.
Finally, the county did a sweep and displaced the stubborn holdouts.
Some of the homeless returned to the park. But so did the neighbors, ready to disassemble any new encampment they might try to build.
Pretty soon the unwelcome campers figured out that it was too much of a hassle to try and remain at Mauna Lahilahi. The neighbors weren’t budging.
A former landscaper who had been living behind a rock wall he built at the mountain’s base said he couldn’t commit to giving up methamphetamine. But after the neighbors broke down his camp twice, he agreed to get a state ID and look for employment.
One morning the neighbors discovered a mother and two small children living in the bushes. They approached the woman and braced for a difficult conversation.
Fortunately, things went smoothly: The neighbors offered the mother help in getting back on her feet. She accepted.
That night the family of three slept in beds at a nearby shelter. But first, the woman and children joined the neighbors for a potluck lunch in a neglected park that was beginning to show signs of beauty again.
Now that criminal activity in the park has subsided, a neighborhood watch group is determined to keep it that way. A group of neighbors patrols the park one or two nights per week.
With the trash hauled out — couches, stuffed animals, beer bottles, buckets of human feces — the neighbors’ monthly cleanup events are spent rooting out invasive trees, shrubs and weeds to make way for new native plantings, such as kou, taro and ti.
But the real emblem of change is the rise in unorchestrated park usage.
Every morning 36-year-old Adam Wayson goes to his favorite rocky nook on the mountain to witness the sun jumping out of the sea.
Under the boughs of an old banyon tree, Malia Aila and her dog Lady stroll on walking paths that they had previously been too frightened to follow.
Chuck Popken, who debated selling his parkside home when all the mayhem erupted, is considering staying put.
“It’s back to what it was,” Popken said. “The kids down the street are in here playing, chasing chickens around. I see them climbing trees. It’s awesome.”
He added, “Even the tourists come.”
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