It remains to be seen if the latest move in the years-long battle to permanently dismantle homeless encampments in Kakaako by shutting down the waterfront park and others nearby for safety reasons will rid the area of one of Oahu’s most intractable homeless populations.
State sheriff’s deputies are scheduled to clear out an estimated 180 homeless people living illegally in Kakaako Waterfront Park and others in the area Sunday night beginning at 10 p.m. while teams of social service workers simultaneously offer services including shelter beds — a scene that has unfolded repeatedly in recent years.
Social workers and deputies will have to keep returning to the shuttered Kakaako Waterfront Park and the adjacent Gateway and Kewalo Basin parks to keep people from sneaking back in, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.
“If someone refuses to leave, law enforcement will take appropriate action,” Morishige said. “However, based on previous experience, a majority of people do comply. Long term, it requires a coordinated response. Law enforcement and outreach providers will continue to work together while the park remains closed to address anyone who may be found in the park during the park closure.”
The homeless encampment in Kakaako prompting the shutdown has grown to an estimated 180 people in 120 reinforced tents — the largest resurgence since an encampment with 300 homeless people created safety and sanitation problems that culminated in an attack on a state representative in 2015.
The state Department of Public Safety, which oversees sheriff’s deputies, is charged with enforcing closure hours and other rules against illegal camping in Kakaako to ensure the homeless don’t return following periodic sweeps.
Toni Schwartz, DPS spokeswoman, did not answer questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Wednesday such as whether deputies actually walk through the parks or how often they patrol the parks.
Instead, Schwartz wrote in an email, “Sheriffs’ deputies do continue to remind park users of the hours of use through regular park closure announcements.”
Several of the dozens of people living in the parks on Wednesday said Sunday night’s planned sweep won’t keep homeless people from returning — as they often do following other high-profile sweeps across Oahu.
“No, no, no, no,” said Chelsey Mauga, 31, who has been living in and around Kakaako Waterfront Park for three years. “Of course not.”
Mauga said she’s been homeless around Kakaako Waterfront Park since 2014 after her arrival from Hilo.
Asked how many times she’s been swept in the past three years, Mauga said, “Too much times. I don’t have enough fingers on my hands.”
Jesse Souki, CEO and executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which manages the parks, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the parks have to be closed indefinitely because of safety concerns and to repair vandalized plumbing and electrical poles and damaged grass.
Homeless people who fill the parks have been blamed for a series of dog attacks, fires and vandalism that Souki estimated would cost $500,000 to repair. The true cost won’t be determined until the parks are closed and a full assessment of the damage can be conducted, he said.
All of the homeless people interviewed by the Star-Advertiser on Wednesday were prepared to be swept from the park Sunday when it closes at 10 p.m. But none of them had a clue where they would go next.
“Where are we going to go?” said Anthony Olshefski, 66, who’s been living in a tent next to the University of Hawaii Cancer Center for the past four months. “We’ve got no place to go.”
Olshefski grew up in Palolo and graduated from McKinley High School in 1969 before joining the Army. He said he becomes homeless every three to four years.
Olshefski had been living in a studio apartment on Hotel Street until his rent increased over time from $500 per month to nearly $900, which he could no longer afford.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Olshefski said.
But he offered an explanation for his neighbors who have smashed drinking fountains and broken into light poles to tap into the power grid.
“They have ill feelings toward the state because the state don’t give a damn,” Olshefski said.
Sippa Saki, 23, said he, his brother, sister-in-law, cousin, the cousin’s wife, and Saki’s 1-year-old nephew, Jayce, had been living together in a three-bedroom apartment in Kalihi until they were evicted a month ago.
They ended up in tents that lined the Kakaako Waterfront Parking lot Wednesday, near where other homeless people were asleep in their cars.
Saki called the family’s situation “crazy.”
Asked where they’ll go Sunday night, Saki said simply, “I don’t know.”
While Saki and his family are new to Kakaako’s homeless population, Morishige said many others have been in the area for at least a decade, meeting the definition of “chronically homeless.”
“These are people who have been in this situation for a long time,” Morishige said. “In some cases you have families with children and youth who have grown up homeless. So it’s important to connect with those families to get them out of this situation.”