Georgette Preston and Jared Castro know the drill after living in a Honolulu park for the past four years.
They sleep in their tent with their possessions on the sidewalk, then move it all into the Moiliili Neighborhood Park for the day in a bid to adhere to a city rule that people can’t be in the parks between 10 p.m and 5 a.m.
But still city maintenance crews and police swept the area on Tuesday, detaining the homeless couple for violating park rules and seizing their belongings. Preston’s sister arrived just in time to grab her wheelchair because she’s been unable to walk for nearly a year.
To make matters worse, it rained as the crews hauled away tarps, suitcases, bedding, clothing, chairs, a table, a solar panel, coolers, tool boxes, carts, hand trucks, dishes, a washing machine and more. The items, which filled up two trucks, were listed on a handwritten receipt that read like an invoice from a moving company.
Preston and Castro were released after a few hours, but the effort to get most of their belongings back is likely to take weeks, as it has in the past, they said.
Homeless people have long complained about losing important belongings – including IDs, birth certificates, social security cards and work documents — during actions aimed at clearing city parks and sidewalks in what Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration calls “sanitation activities.”
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii issued a report calling on officials to stop enforcing laws that “criminalize homelessness” and instead to prioritize community building, security, cultural changes and more affordable housing.
The ACLU also recommended creating a mobile crisis response that would be autonomous from the police to help cope with the growing homelessness problem.
According to the report, Honolulu conducted 1,634 homeless sweeps, averaging more than five sweeps a day, from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. The ACLU estimated that “the sweeps alone cost $5 million per year.”
It noted that one of the purported goals of the sweeps is to encourage homeless people to use shelters where they can receive services. The report was based on interviews with government officials, service providers and homeless people, as well as reviews of all county budgets from the past three years.
“However, sweeps are devastating for residents whose belongings are seized or destroyed, having negative economic, physical, psychological impacts that can actually prevent individuals from securing housing,” the report said.
Blangiardi campaigned on a promise to end homeless sweeps that drew criticism during his predecessor Kirk Caldwell’s administration. But critics say the city has only rebranded the sweeps as it continues to post enforcement schedules every day and to send crews to uproot the homeless encampments.
Under Honolulu’s stored property ordinance, homeless people have 45 days to retrieve the items before they’re thrown away, recycled, donated or sold. Honolulu is the only county that has this law after a court-sanctioned agreement in 2015 that prevents the city from immediately disposing of homeless peoples’ property.
But authorities don’t make it easy, advocates say. Homeless people must call the Department of Facility and Maintenance to schedule a day and time to pick up the seized property, which is all stored at the Halawa Corporation Yard in an industrial area in central Oahu.
The warehouse is only open for pickup every Friday. The city charges a $200 fee for impounded property, but homeless people may apply for that to be waived.
Wookie Kim, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said the storage unit is too hard to reach and homeless people should be allowed to keep belongings that are needed to survive on the streets until they can eventually transition into permanent housing.
“The fact that it’s so challenging and difficult is an indicator that the system is intended as punishment,” Kim said.
Blangiardi’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the retrieval process.
Housing Director Anton Krucky has said in the past that city officials adhere to stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances by allowing people 30 minutes to gather their items. He also said most individuals are notified the day before the cleaning occurs and noted that they get a receipt allowing them to claim their items.
The storage and disposal notices are posted on the city’s website and range from a single backpack to multiple items as in Preston and Castro’s case.
The yellow notices have spaces for signatures by the “property owner” and the city employee, but many are empty or illegible.
So far this year, the city has issued 355 impoundment notices, and only 18 individuals retrieved their property, according to data from the Department of Facility and Maintenance.
Last year, 555 impoundment notices were issued and only 53 people got their belongings back.
This is a familiar process for Preston and Castro. They said that they’ve been to Halawa at least five times within two years, most recently in early August.
When they got there, Castro said they had to wait in the parking lot while the maintenance crew brings their property up from a warehouse.
This time around, they’re living in a borrowed tent until they can save enough money to rent a U-Haul to retrieve their property from the Halawa facility, which is more than nine miles away from the park.
“It’s disheartening,” Preston said, adding that the biggest loss was a dirt bike she had planned to give her grandson for his birthday.
Some Moiliili residents have complained about the homeless encampment at the park and urged authorities to increase enforcement of the sit-lie rules.
Homelessness is a statewide problem, but the other islands lack laws preventing authorities from throwing away items.
A recent “clean-up” of an encampment in Maui has prompted a lawsuit on behalf of four homeless people. The lawsuit, filed on Oct. 20 in Second Circuit Court by the ACLU of Hawaii, requested an order requiring the county to comply with the 4th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and protect personal property and due process rights.
Lindsay Pacheco has made the transition from homelessness to being housed and now works with another nonprofit organization, Hui Aloha, to provide outreach service through a network of volunteers.
She’s familiar with the process of witnessing belongings stripped away.
“To us, once it’s taken, it’s taken,” she said. “We’re never seeing it again. Starting from zero with just the clothes on your back and whatever belongings you have in your backpack is not the easiest.”
Part of Pacheco’s job is to help homeless people get documents needed to apply for housing and other resources — a task that’s more difficult for nonresidents.
“It’s a headache, and it’s a lot of research on our part,” Pacheco said.
Curtis Love, who has been homeless for more than four years, is down to a cart full of clothes, a juice carton, a tent, a mat and a blanket.
He currently lives off of his social security, but said it’s still not enough to get housing.
About three months ago, the city took his belongings for a third time. Love didn’t bother to make the trip to the Halawa facility again.
“Most guys on the streets just give up,” Love said. “If it (the storage unit) was close by, maybe.”
Preston recalled the most precious items that she lost during a sweep four years ago – photos of her father and a necklace containing his ashes.
“I tell everybody don’t get attached to their things because you only possess them for a moment,” Preston said. “If you really, really love something, don’t keep it here.”
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