Amid increasing concerns from state officials, the nearly 200 residents of one of Oahu’s largest homeless encampments welcomed hundreds of curious people inside Sunday with the message that the encampment on state-owned land is a better alternative than another law enforcement sweep.
“I hope the government will bring us to the table,” said Twinkle Borge, who is known as “Mamas” to the other residents of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae. “Help us talk about it.”
For more than four hours on Sunday, 550 people signed up to take guided tours across a swatch of the 19.5 acres of state Department of Land and Natural Resources land next to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor and saw fenced-off dwellings, posted rules, and dogs in kennels and behind fences — and heard the message that education for the homeless children of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae remains a priority.
Dave Hau of Kaneohe brought his son, Ping, a 14-year-old freshman at Punahou School.
“I’ve never seen a homeless camp, other than the ones I drive by,” Hau said.
Father and son stood over one of the holes that lead to suspected underground caverns believed to contain a rare “Waianae lineage” of red shrimp that DLNR biologists are worried about — and have been fenced off by Pu‘uhonoa o Waianae resident Calvin Silva to help protect the ecosystem.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Ping Hau said. “It’s very well organized. It’s actually impressive.”
Silva, 66, whose structure is directly across from the holes, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he wants to protect the half-inch-long shrimp known as opae ula and take care of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae because “it’s our home.”
Silva said he hopes Sunday’s visitors understand that “we appreciate what we have.”
The tours were scheduled to run from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, and visitors were still lining up at 4 p.m. Organizer Josiah Koria later reported that 550 people in all signed up to tour Pu‘uhonua o Waianae.
It was unclear how many of the people were first-time visitors and how many had been there before and turned out to show their support, such as Barry and Gayle Kandul of Waianae, whose 27-year-old son, Noah, used to live in the encampment.
Instead of living in an organized community in Pu‘uhonua o Waianae, Noah, who suffers from schizophrenia, is now somewhere “on the streets in Honolulu,” Gayle said. “I’d rather have him here.”
The tours were conducted as state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, plans to add language in each of three surviving House homeless-related bills that would call for a state lease to be offered to Borge’s nonprofit organization, Dynamic Community Solutions.
Mizuno envisions that a state lease would be modeled after the 55-year lease the state offered to Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele 24 years ago on a parcel of mauka Waimanalo land after Kanahele led 300 people in occupying Makapuu Beach Park in the early 1990s.
The similarity between the names of Kanahele’s leased land — Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo — and Pu‘uhonua o Waianae is no coincidence. “Pu‘uhonua” means “refuge,” and Kanahale has been coaching Borge for nearly three years, Kanahele told the Star-Advertiser this month.
On Sunday, Mizuno showed up at Pu‘uhonua o Waianae and said he hopes the public tours change visitors’ perceptions of not only the homeless, but of the camp specifically.
“Hopefully, we can transform a person’s perception once they are able to take a tour and, for perhaps one or two hours, be in the shoes of the people of this village,” Mizuno said.
State Homeless Coordinator Scott Morishige previously said there were no plans to sweep the encampment, partly because of its size and the difficulty of relocating nearly 200 people and what Borge said are their 148 dogs.
But DLNR officials continue to worry that residents and their dogs may be harming the shrimp and their ecosystem, along with ancient burial sites and pre- and post-contact rock walls.
Next door at the Waianae Small Boat Harbor, DLNR officials also link vandalism, garbage and a spike in water use to the encampment.
Commercial fishermen who pay fees to use the harbor also have told the Star- Advertiser that the harbor’s bathrooms often lack toilet paper and soap, which they blame on the homeless, and are locked at night and early mornings — when fishermen need to use them — due to persistent vandalism.
Borge has said the people of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae have offered to pay for their water use and have asked to be taught how to properly care for the shrimp and their ecosystem.
Just before the first tour of visitors walked through Pu‘uhonua o Waianae on Sunday, Borge said, “We’re not like any encampment.”