KALIHIWAI, Kauai — On Kauai, isolating hundreds of homeless people in five county beach parks for the last year has helped keep them safe from the coronavirus. It has also provided many of them with a rare sense of security.

Designated shelter-in-place camps, monitored by the county Health Department, have meant that people who are homeless can live in their cars and tents openly, without having to hide in the bushes or move constantly to dodge the authorities. Bringing them all together would have made it easier for health regulators to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak, although there never was one.

Many homeless campers have created elaborate, semi-permanent living quarters over the last year, complete with furniture, a communal trampoline for the kids, kayaks, electric stoves and solar panels.

Now, hundreds of homeless campers face an abrupt end to their newfound sense of stability. As the county prepares to reopen beach parks to leisure camping, government officials are shutting down the homeless camps so residents and tourists can reclaim these spaces for recreation. 

Kim Winningham, 44, said she does not plan to vacate Anini Beach Park when the county ends its shelter-in-place camping program for homeless people on Wednesday. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

Homeless campers must leave Anini Beach Park, a popular tourist destination, and Anahola Beach Park, by Wednesday. Evictions at Lucy Wright Beach Park, Lydgate Beach Park and Salt Pond Beach Park are planned over the next three months.

“For each homeless individual in the park who would really love to stay there, there’s a phone call to the mayor’s office from an irate citizen who would like the park returned to its normal use and is upset that the bathrooms are trashed and that there are abandoned vehicles all over the park and that it’s unclean,” said Kauai County Housing Director Adam Roversi.

“They want to be able to have their kid’s birthday party at the park again,” he said.

At Anini Beach Park, a prized snorkeling spot on the island’s north shore, there’s been a slow exit of homeless people. But dozens of homeless families remain unmoved. The problem, many of them say, is there’s nowhere else to go.

“I want to be in a home,” said Kim Winningham, 44, who has been homeless for five years. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing. People drive by slow, take pictures of us. It’s like, ‘You guys have any respect?’”

“People think, ‘They’re all druggies and bad people, that’s why they’re houseless.’ That’s not always the case. There’s a lot of good people out here.”

Some campers say they have jobs at restaurants or work in landscaping or construction.

If the county Department of Parks and Recreation tries to enforce evictions at Anini Beach Park on Wednesday, Winningham and several other people who’ve made a home there this past year said they will refuse to leave.

“Everyone down there was told that that’s where you’re going to live,” said Brian Cervantes, who started living at Anini Beach Park after he lost his business at the start of the pandemic.

“When you’re down there for a year, you don’t just live in a tent,” he said. “You accumulate things and you find ways to make it a little home for yourself. And then all of a sudden you’re told you have a month to go someplace else and there’s nowhere to go. And that’s what’s been so hard for so many of the people down there — ‘Where? Where do I go?’”

The pandemic has prompted a wave of people to leave the U.S. mainland for the perceived safety, warmth and beauty of Hawaii, exacerbating a housing market that is already unaffordable for many locals. 

In January, the median cost of a single-family house on Kauai had increased $300,000 over the previous year, topping $1 million.  

Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden said she periodically visits the designated shelter-in-place camp at Anini Beach Park to help the homeless people there better understand what housing assistance programs are available to them. Many of them, she said, do not have a plan for where to go when the program ends on Wednesday. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

The going rate for a modest housing rental has also reached a fever pitch. Kauai realtors say there has been a net loss of rental property inventory as home owners sell their rental properties to new residents feverishly seeking to buy a place to live. 

“We’re in the middle of this storm of people moving here,” said Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden, who periodically visits the homeless camp at Anini to try and find housing solutions for the people who live there on the beach. 

“We have waves of people coming from the continental United States escaping whatever problems are there,” she said. “They’re bringing their work with them. They’re bringing their businesses. Most of them, honestly, are pretty wonderful people. It’s just that there’s a tremendous number of them coming in and a lot of locals can’t compete with the prices they can afford to pay for rent or for real estate.”

With the island rejoining the state’s Safe Travels Program and effectively reopening to tourism on April 5, demand is fomenting for beach parks to transition from homeless camps to tourist destinations. 

Closing the camps is also a goal of some residents who have struggled to live alongside constant disturbances, including fighting between campers, domestic disputes and drug use. 

Kauai police received 286 calls for service to Anini Beach Park from March 2020 to February 2021, according to KPD spokeswoman Coco Zickos. The top three reasons for the calls were domestic disputes, welfare checks and COVID-19 violations.

Multiple campers said a young woman recently gave birth at the beach park. On Monday, firefighters picked up a camper who was blocking traffic by laying in the middle of the road.

Piecemeal Solutions, But No ‘Silver Bullet’

Kauai County has made myriad efforts during the coronavirus pandemic to expand the amount of affordable housing options for residents.

More than a dozen families — nearly all of whom were homeless and had been camping in county beach parks — started moving into the county’s first housing development geared toward addressing homelessness last November. 

The new 30-unit Kealaula on Pua Loke Supportive Housing Development in Lihue offers social services, including substance abuse counseling and employment services, to approximately 70 residents.

But the housing project is at full capacity with a waiting list.

Homeless camps at county beach parks are nothing new. But the county’s shelter-in-place program has allowed homeless people camping at five designated parks to build elaborate, highly visible structures without fear of violating vagrancy laws. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

The island’s emergency homeless shelter — which only has 19 beds available because of COVID-19 precautions — is full, as well. 

The number of available vouchers for the island’s Section 8 rental assistance program increased by more than 200 households to about 900 during the pandemic, Roversi said.

There’s also a pot of $22 million in federal CARES Act money that’s being funneled toward emergency rental assistance on Kauai to pay up to a year of people’s rent.

But to be eligible, the tenant must first have a lease agreement.

For many homeless people, this requirement is a nonstarter.

“Every day we check and every day (the rental listings) get higher and higher and higher,” Cervantes said. “And without a way to get into a home, there’s no way to get a piece of that $22 million.”

Roversi acknowledged that all of these partial and piecemeal solutions to the island’s homelessness problem merely “nibble at the edges.”

“We’re under no illusion that we have enough empty houses sitting around for all of the homeless population,” Roversi said. “I mean, that’s basically asking, ‘What’s the solution for homelessness?’ We didn’t have a solution before COVID-19 and, unfortunately, we don’t have one now, either.”

The annual point-in-time count, in which volunteers survey Kauai’s homeless population, was canceled this year due to COVID-19. But the number of homeless people counted by volunteers averaged around 425 people from 2016 to 2020.

Roversi said he doesn’t suspect that the homeless population has increased all that much, in part due to a statewide moratorium on evictions that has protected tenants from getting booted from housing even if they are unable to pay the rent.

But there is the illusion of an explosion of homelessness on the island, he said, because the shelter-in-place camps have made homelessness so visible.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Where are the homeless folks supposed to go?’” Roversi said, adding that there isn’t a silver-bullet solution.

“The harsh reality is that the homeless population will go to exactly where they were before COVID-19,” he said. “Some of them will remain in the parks. But they won’t be in these very visible, built-up, semi-permanent structures.”

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