The term “homeless sweep” doesn’t appear in Hawaii newspapers until the early 2000s, but officials have been ordering large-scale homeless enforcements since at least 1901.

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For more than a year, they had lived undisturbed on a spit of sand near Honolulu Harbor — a few dozen individuals cobbling together homes from driftwood and discarded boards, “almost anything that would keep out the wind and rain.” 

The immigrants living in the makeshift community known as the “South Sea Island Settlement” built structures that newspapers alternatively described as both “misshapen” and “picturesque” and made a living by fishing and weaving hats for tourists.

In 1901, when the Board of Health decided the community should be dismantled, Rev. Hiram Bingham II had a question for policymakers that homeless advocates are still asking today: Where shall these people go? 

Hawaii residents from the Gilbert Islands, shown here in a 1901 The Honolulu Advertiser article, were deemed squatters on public land in the early 1900s. (Screenshot/

Efforts to move homeless in the name of public health and sanitation are often referred to these days as “homeless sweeps.” It’s a relatively new term, but not a new policy. Newspaper archives from Hawaii show that officials have been conducting large-scale homeless enforcement actions for well over 100 years.

Articles about unsanctioned communities on public land on Sand Island in 1920 and Kakaako in 1925 and on beaches on the Waianae Coast in the 1970s show how long Hawaii has struggled with homelessness.

Public debates from the early 1900s over who is responsible for dealing with homeless communities also sounds familiar today. As do complaints about the impact of homeless camps on homeowners.

In 1920, “disorderly Squatters” in Kapiolani Park were given 30 days notice to remove their shacks after complaints from a resident to the Board of Supervisors about how behavior in the camp was making the neighborhood “almost uninhabitable for decent persons.”

Other things have changed.

Dealing With ‘Squatters’

Quarantine officers often burned structures constructed by homeless communities in the early 20th century. (Screenshot/

People constructing makeshift shelters in public parks and beaches in Hawaii were frequently referred to as squatters, rather than homeless, for much of the 20th century. Enforcement actions were evictions, often undertaken by city health officials.

In some instances, people were given a 30-day notice to move or offered the chance to dismantle their humble structures to save the lumber.

But often, the actions were not so kind. Forget about a stored ordinance rule for retrieving property: in many instances, city officials burned homeless communities to the ground.

In 1914, when city officials burned the homes of several dozen people living on public land on Sand Island, people stood by helplessly and watched their belongings go up in flames, according to a Honolulu Advertiser report.

“Last night the shelterless unfortunates scattered about the city, wherever they could find lodgings within their means, or huddled in groups near the ruins of their huts,” the paper wrote.

“When the quarantine officers come to Sand Island, where we few Hawaiians, with our families, have been earning an honest living by fishing, and burn our huts and belongings, it is time to protest.”

Resident of Sand Island squatters village, 1914.

One of the biggest public policy debates about people living unsanctioned on public land was in the mid-1920s, when a small group of individuals living in Kakaako grew to a well-established community of more than 189 households and 700 individuals. The community was dubbed “Squattersville,” a term that even shows up in birth announcements in local newspapers.

Arguments raged for years about whether to raze the community, which was developed enough to have its own grocery store and barbershop.

“Somebody’s always picking on Squattersville for something,” a resident of the area wrote to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1925, pointing out that a slew of proposals for the land use had come and gone over the years. “Why not leave it alone and let it fill its present purpose — a place for people to live in.”

The debate dragged on for several years, something that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called out for giving residents false hope.

“It is time for a showdown now, and for an end to the cruel kindness of politicians who encourage Squattersville and its residents,” the Star-Bulletin wrote. “Their kindness is cruel because it ultimately must fail of its purpose. The territory cannot sanction such seizure of public land and ultimately must dispossess those who have made their homes there.”

Residents of Squattersville were evicted in 1926. Many dismantled their homes or had some moved to a new location. Officials razed the last few remaining structures.

It could have been worse for the residents, newspapers pointed out.

A 1925 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article about the arrest of strikers living on public land. (Screenshot/

In the early 1920s the Territorial Legislature passed a law criminalizing trespassing on developed public lands. The law was one of two — along with a vagrancy law — used to keep people from living on public land.

The previous year, the attorney general oversaw a mass arrest of 77 Filipino men who had been living for more than eight months in a makeshift camp on Kauai.

The men, along with their families, had moved onto public land in Kapaa after they went on a labor strike and had to leave the sugar plantation where they worked.

Sanitation and health were given as the reasons for clearing the camp, but it was also a convenient way to end the labor struggle. The men were given the choice of avoiding a 10-day jail sentence if they could have an employer come and vouch for them.

Health and sanitation concerns were — and still are — used as a reason for moving homeless communities. In this instance, the sanitation argument was a clear excuse for ending the labor strike. (Screenshot/

Longstanding Arguments

Arguments over the ineffectiveness of removing people from public lands without having another place for them to go go back more than a century.

And people have long pushed back against what they see as the injustice of people — particularly Native Hawaiians — being forcibly moved from public land.

“When the quarantine officers come to Sand Island, where we few Hawaiians, with our families, have been earning an honest living by fishing, and burn our huts and belongings, it is time to protest,” a resident of a “squatters community” on Sand Island told The Honolulu Advertiser in 1914. “In the face of such acts our boasted motto, ‘Land of the Free, Home of the Brave,’ is a mockery.'”

In the late 1970s, people living on Sand Island spent months resisting state efforts to break up what was still being referred to as a squatters camp. That chapter in Hawaii history, which came amid the Hawaiian renaissance and a wave of activism, is well-documented. But Hawaiian communities have sprung up — and been removed by officials — on Sand Island repeatedly between 1914 and the 1990s.

A 1991 Honolulu Advertiser article about the planned removal of homeless families living on Sand Island highlights longstanding pushback over breaking up homeless communities without housing alternatives in place. (Screenshot/

By 1990 — the first year that the term “homeless crisis” shows up in Hawaii newspapers — media coverage had moved away from calling people living on state land squatters and enforcement actions were rarely referred to as evictions anymore.

The first article where the term “homeless sweeps” appears is a 2003 Star-Bulletin story about sweeps of “illegal campers” at Ala Moana Beach Park causing community concern. More than 100 people were chased from the park, the paper reported.

“Lynn Maunakea, the Institute for Human Services’ executive director, expressed frustration with the recent sweeps at Ala Moana, Honolulu Airport and Aala Park,” the paper reported. “She said the state’s shelters have long been filled and service providers have been advocating for permanent housing.” 

“We don’t want to invest more in warehousing people,” she said. “That’s not the solution.”

Amidst the arguments over removing homeless communities from public land comes again and again this refrain: Where, though, should people go?

“If you think that the people remaining in Aala Park should be allowed to stay in a city park,” Honolulu Mayor Franki Fasi wrote the City Council in 1990 during a heated disagreement over what to do about people living in the park that still rings true today, “then you tell me which park in YOUR district you are willing to suggest they take up residence.”

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