City parks and recreation director Michele Nekota hopes by next month to issue a request for proposals for vendors to operate concessions in two pavilions at Kuhio Beach Park in Waikiki.
Nekota says the city will expedite the process with the new businesses up and running in the pavilions in four to six months. “We would like to get them going as soon as possible,” she says.
The goal of leasing out this public land at Kuhio Beach Park is to deny the area to hard-core homeless who have commandeered the pavilions for years.
But city officials are unwilling to describe the purpose quite as directly as that because, I suspect, of a concern that such a statement would ignite legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii for alleged discrimination.
All the city will say is that the new concessions will provide needed services for the public.
It has already leased two of the four pavilions fronting Kuhio Beach.
One current vendor has a three-year contract that can be extended for two more years to run an eatery called Grass Shack Bistro in the pavilion closest to Honolulu Police Department’s Waikiki substation.
Another structure known as Pavilion No. 3 was leased out by the city last month to a beach services provider to rent surfboards and beach equipment as well as offer surfing lessons and outrigger canoe rides. That contract went to a nonprofit organization called Pacific Island Beach Boys, whose president is longtime Waikiki waterman David Carvalho.
City spokesman Alexander Zannes says the city offered just a six-month revocable permit because it wasn’t certain a beach-service vendor in a roadside pavilion was a good idea or how it might affect other nearby city concession stand operators like Dive Oahu.
Pavilions No. 2 and No. 4, soon to be leased out, are still largely taken over by squatters.
All four of the pavilions at the beach were once open sided but that will change. The city has hired a contractor to install black aluminum folding grill fences for security each day after the concessions close for business.
Primatech Construction will install the gates and the city expects them to be up as early as May.
When I was young, the Kuhio Beach pavilions were called “the hau arbors.” Card, cribbage and chess players used them regularly. Always open, they served as shady places for the public to enjoy the sea air and beautiful ocean views.
“This is another loss for the public,” says Dr. Mary Flynn. Flynn is a retired pathologist who lives in Maunalani Heights.
I also feel bad about the loss of the pavilions as public open spaces because of the comfort they provided for Waikiki workers. Walking down Kalakaua Avenue to my gym, I often passed small groups of hotel maids gathered around the arbors’ tables to enjoy cold drinks, snacks and camaraderie between their shifts.
Or in very early mornings I watched workers in their hotel uniforms come from Mass at St. Augustine’s Church to relax over coffee in the arbors before starting work.
But times have changed. In 2018, the pavilions were so filthy and crime ridden that then city Councilman Trevor Ozawa tried but was unsuccessful in winning approval for legislation to have them demolished.
“The pavilions are not available to the public now because of the inappropriate activities going on in them,” says Honolulu Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer. “The activities that are provided by the concessions will allow the public to come back to use them.”
Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, says he’d like the city to move as quickly as possible to lease out the pavilions.
“I would love to see the old days come back but I don’t see how that could happen,” he says. “The days of chess and checkers and old folks enjoying the scenery are gone. If the pavilions are left empty they fill up with people engaged in undesirable activities.”
Some passersby are scared to enter the pavilions because of the emotional volatility of the mentally ill homeless and the stench of feces and urine. A few people monopolize tables by stretching their sleeping bags across them and dozing off.
Homeless squatters are required to vacate the pavilions only from 2 a.m. until 5 a.m., the hours that Kuhio Beach Park is closed.
And all people in the pavilions are required to remove their personal property from the structures from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. to allow city workers to clean the areas, which they do each morning by leaf blowing and power washing at each pavilion.
The frustrated workers say the police do not regularly enforce the posted requirement for pavilion users to move their things to make way for the daily cleaning, so the workers are often like a maid service cleaning up around the occupants.
Homeless in the pavilions cannot be told to leave because of the sit-lie law. The city’s anti-loitering ordinance applies only to sidewalks, not the pavilions and the grassy areas around the pavilions, which are part of Kuhio Beach Park.
Even the state’s most tireless advocate for the homeless agrees that the situation at Kuhio Beach has become dire.
“There is a lot of nastiness going on in the pavilions. Bringing in concessions is not a bad thing, “ says Connie Mitchell, the executive director of the Institute for Human Services, Hawaii’s oldest and largest homeless services provider.
She says when all four concessions are operating and the homeless no longer can monopolize the pavilions, many of them will move out to the sand on Kuhio Beach where dozens are already sleeping.
“People have to be prepared for that,” Mitchell says. “The people in the pavilions are the chronic homeless with mental health, alcohol and drug abuse problems. There is no structure, no system in place yet to motivate them to seek treatment on their own. There is no carrot. Their illnesses have robbed them of the ability to made good decisions for themselves.”
Government and private service providers have had some success helping many of Hawaii’s homeless residents, but unsheltered addicts and mentally ill vagrants in Chinatown and Waikiki and other locations still represent the state’s biggest challenge.
Mitchell says the state’s new assisted community treatment law can help some cases but it can take time to get a judge to order a mentally ill homeless person to accept medical intervention against his or her will. And she says Hawaii still lacks the needed number of treatment facilities.
Marc Alexander, the city’s housing director, has been working with IHS to come up with creative ways to reach the service-resistant homeless like the men and women inhabiting the beach pavilions.
He points to the city’s new HONU program as offering help to otherwise service-resistant homeless all over the island. HONU is short for Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons.
When police see a homeless person breaking a city law, the violator is given the option of arrest or transportation to shelter and services at the city’s tent facility in Waipahu.
Alexander says the HONU facility is expected to move soon to the Old Stadium Park, which would be closer for transportation of Waikiki’s homeless.
Last year at a visitor public safety conference, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said she intended to make Waikiki uncomfortable for the homeless.
But that’s a tall order. Waikiki can be welcoming to many people, even the homeless who often benefit from the kindness of visitors ready to share half of their sandwich or pass out a few dollars to panhandlers.
HPD spokeswoman Sarah Yoro did not say specifically what the chief is doing to make Waikiki unwelcoming other than to point out that police are telling homeless where to go for services and shelter and reminding them they have to vacate the pavilions between 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.
She said the number of complaints and concerns from the public dropped after the city leased out the first two pavilions at Kuhio Beach to private concessionaires.
Last year, HPD officers issued more than 8,000 citations to all kinds of violators, not just homeless, for various offenses in Waikiki.
Interestingly, one of the concessions the city said it would like to see in the pavilions in the future would be a locker facility for beach goers to store their valuables to prevent theft. That would be much safer than people hiding their wallets and car keys in the sand while they swim.
Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.