Koa Kekawa, 25, of Aiea sat at a picnic table at Neal S. Blaisdell Park on Tuesday and tried to remember ever visiting the park before when he did not see at least a couple of homeless people.
“It used to be horrible,” said Kekawa, who’s been seeing homeless people at the park ever since his days at Aiea Elementary School, Aiea Middle School and Aiea High School. “Now you can see Ford Island with a clear view. It looks 100 times better.”
What remains to be seen is whether a homeless sweep that began Aug. 8 and temporarily closed Blaisdell Park for repairs will continue to keep the park and its adjacent, makai-side bike path clear of homeless encampments.
After years of failed efforts, the city tried a new approach in August when the Navy let city cleanup crews and police enforce a city stored-property law on federal land that runs below the popular Pearl Harbor Historic Trail, which is also known as the Pearl Harbor Bike Path.
On Tuesday, at least, not a single homeless person or tent or tarp could be seen anywhere around or in front of Blaisdell Park, which reopened for the Labor Day weekend.
The city and state are using a combination of law enforcement, cleanup crews and social service outreach to try to ensure that public lands remain clear of homeless encampments after a sweep by coming back with police officers or sheriff’s deputies — while social workers continue to offer services, including bed space in homeless shelters.
The August sweep at Blaisdell Park got 43 people off of the street, according to the city. They included six families, four dogs and three cats.
One person went to the Institute for Human Services in Iwilei; 33 checked into the Waianae Civic Center shelter; and nine were taken in by family and friends, the city said.
Joseph Acosta, director of operations for the nonprofit organization ALEA Bridge, which continues to work with homeless people from the area, called the 33 people taken to the Waianae Civic Center “a big number.”
At the same time, Acosta said, “at least 50” people who used to live on the bike path are now scattered in the bushes north and south of Blaisdell Park — either on the Waipahu side closer to Hawaiian Electric Co.’s Waiau power plant or on the town side of the bike path near Best Buy, Acosta said.
“A lot of people who were in the Blaisdell area just moved up to the power plant or down to Best Buy — all the way to Aloha Stadium,” Acosta said.
While the August sweep seems to have kept homeless people from returning directly in front of the park, “the bottom line is we can’t house these guys fast enough,” Acosta said. “There’s no (affordable housing) inventory.”
The group living in and on top of mangroves on the town side of the bike path will be swept next, “possibly within the next couple of weeks,” city spokesman Andrew Pereira said.
A third sweep at the end of the trail near a Navy boathouse might or might not involve the city, Pereira said.
The ability of the city to sweep Navy land “will go a long way in deterring future encampments,” Pereira said. “It’s just a matter of continued enforcement and vigilance.”
Two cleanup crews from the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance clear homeless encampments on city land. Pereira encouraged anyone to report possible encampments by calling the department at 768-4381.
Councilman Brandon Elefante, who represents the area that includes Blaisdell Park, was pleased that the park looks so nice following the sweep and repairs, which included landscaping and painting.
The city’s cleanup crew also hauled out 41 tons of trash and confiscated 42 shopping carts.
Elefante was particularly happy that 43 people who had been living in tarps and tents along the bike path are now off the street.
“We were surprised — 43 individuals were able to find shelter or services,” Elefante said. “I thought it would be less.”
For park users, Elefante said, “the trail is very open now.”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Ian Bruce, 28, jogged along the trail Tuesday with an unobstructed ocean view.
While he ran past homeless encampments near the HECO power plant, there was no one directly in front of Blaisdell Park for the first time in weeks.
“I used to see tents all over,” Bruce said. “Now it’s much different.”