ACLU and some service providers say the enforcement actions are cruel, possibly illegal and exacerbate the problem.

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii Island — Darciea Leialoha Hilderbrand was fast asleep on the grass outside Kona Aquatic Center early Wednesday morning. As palm trees swayed in the breeze, she awoke to a voice asking if she’d like a cup of coffee.

Homeless outreach workers from HOPE Services Hawaii were gently attempting to wake her up at 4:45 a.m. as a line of police cars streamed into the parking lot. The Hilo-based nonprofit had set battery-operated lamps on the ground and around a folding table stocked with hot beverages and snacks.

“We wanted to give them a warm welcome this morning with coffee and donuts,” said Carrie Hoopii, HOPE Services Hawaii outreach team leader.

A blanket enveloping her, Hilderbrand snuggled with her small mixed-breed dog, Mana, and didn’t stir. Her partner, Levy Silva, was packing their belongings into garbage bags. The couple needed to move. With police arriving, it was time to vacate.

Darciea Leialoha Hilderbrand and her dog Mana were among those moved off county property at the Kona Aquatic Center. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Hilderbrand and Silva, from the Big Island and Maui, respectively, were among about 17 people who were camping on a grassy strip outside the oceanside aquatic center in an industrial section of Kailua-Kona.

The number of homeless residents outside the county-owned athletic facility had swelled in recent weeks. But for the past several days outreach workers have been telling those living there that the police were coming, so many had already cleared out before Wednesday.

Regina Weller with 808 Homeless Task Force offered Hilderbrand and Silva a place to go.

“We have four beds available,” Weller said.

Silva was willing to go. Hilderbrand wasn’t. She feared being split up.

“I’m not going to leave my dog or Levy,” said Hilderbrand, who has been living on the streets since 2009.

Weller tried a few more times but Hilderbrand wasn’t budging. Finally, she gave up.

“You don’t have to go. You have a choice,” Weller said, walking away.

She had a line of tents with sleepy people inside she needed to get to as officers approached.

Regina Weller runs 808 Homeless Task Force. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

One of the first on the scene was Hawaii Police Sgt. Brandon Mansur, who leads community policing in the greater Kona area. He was joined by seven other armed officers.

“This is all about outreach. It’s not about law enforcement,” Mansur said.

The main goal of Wednesday morning’s operation was to provide services to the people there. The secondary goal, he said, was to create a safe environment at the gym.

That’s not how ACLU of Hawaii sees it. On Monday, the group sent a demand letter to the county, asking officials to call off any action to move the homeless people out of the area, as they had done on May 24 in another section of Kona.

“The County is engaging in these sweeps despite knowing full well that Hawaii County does not have sufficient available shelter space to house the people who have been impacted by these sweeps,” according to the letter.

While the ACLU said all emergency shelter beds were full as of last Friday, outreach workers on Wednesday were able to offer placements to anyone who wanted a roof over their heads.

“We maneuvered and we made some adjustments,” said Hoopii.

A group of homeless residents were removed from their camping spot outside the Kona Aquatic Center on Wednesday. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

But while some 13 homeless residents accepted offers to be moved to shelters or accepted relocation services including airfare, a woman named Kristen who was sporting a fresh black eye she received during an alleged assault by her mother questioned why police needed to break up the encampments.

“Why are they doing this? They don’t need to,” she said.

Kristen sat at the folding table in the parking lot. With tears streaming down her face, she spoke with Mona Maynard, who was arranging for a police report to be taken and for Kristen to be moved into a crisis stabilization center. Maynard is the co-founder of Root & Rise, a nonprofit that helps underserved populations experiencing mental illness and homelessness.

Sitting on the grass as Mana playfully chomped on her arm, Hilderbrand also wondered why police were making her move.

“We don’t vandalize the park. We try to keep it clean,” she said.

As she spoke, Silva ran a rake over their gravel camping spot, helping to clean up.

Maurice Messina, the county parks director, said he had asked police to remove the campers, whose numbers had grown in size in recent weeks. Feces and hazardous materials left behind were becoming a problem. Drug and alcohol use and unleashed pets were also making the situation unsafe. Something needed to be done, he said.

Over the course of several hours on Wednesday morning, Messina and officers spoke with the homeless people and offered them the option of storing their belongings for up to a month in 40-foot shipping containers the county has purchased for that purpose. Some agreed but others were skeptical they would get their property back.

“Those things get broken into,” Hilderbrand said.

Paul Norman, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna and co-chair of Community Alliance Partners, said enforcement actions like Wednesday’s and the previous operation on May 24 at Hale Halawai Beach Park exacerbate the homelessness crisis.

“Sweeps are cruel, and they don’t work. That’s the bottom line,” Norman said in a news release.

Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth bristled at the term “sweep” to describe homeless enforcement actions.

“Our administration is not conducting forced homeless sweeps. We are compassionately enforcing park rules with the assistance of numerous human service organizations, who are there to provide vital resources to those affected by the enforcement efforts,” Roth said Tuesday in a news release.

Kona police begin to move people out of a homeless encampment outside the Kona Aquatic Center on Wednesday. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

He noted that during the May 24 operation, two tons of trash were removed from the site. In another news release issued Wednesday afternoon, Roth said “two truckloads” of trash were collected. He said the latest operation “reflects our unwavering commitment to safety, compassion, and the well-being of our community.”

County Council member Rebecca Villegas, whose district includes Kona, said she supports the mayor in how he’s approaching the homelessness problem.

“I am deeply grateful for Mayor Roth’s courage and his decision to proceed with the responsible and appropriate parks rules enforcement operation at the Kona Community Aquatic Center earlier today,” Villegas said by email.

The county and service agencies “have worked diligently to ensure that these operations are an outreach to provide services for those who are experiencing homelessness, not sweep them away,” she said. 

Under the Roth administration, the number of homeless individuals has risen from 837 in 2022 to 1,004 people in 2023, Norman said.

A Kona police officer observes homeless residents pack up during a sweep of a homeless camp outside the Kona Aquatic Center. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

“What we should all be asking ourselves is where is it safe for homeless people to be? Where is the political leadership and vision that will help us build the housing that will end homelessness in Hawaii County?” Norman said.

The ACLU said the county’s recent removal of homeless camps violates the constitutional rights of citizens. 

In its demand letter, the ACLU of Hawaii cited Martin v. City of Boise, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2018. A three-judge panel found that a city cannot criminalize indigent people for sleeping outdoors on public property if there is no alternative shelter. To do so violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, according to the ruling.

A group of homeless residents were removed from their camping spot outside the Kona Aquatic Center on Wednesday. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

The ACLU of Hawaii said it has challenged police enforcement actions on other islands, including Oahu and Maui.

Legal matters aside, Weller said her focus is on finding places for homeless people to go, whether it’s on the Big Island, with their families on the mainland, or elsewhere.

“Violence is letting them stay out here in despair,” said Weller.

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