The years-long battle with the homeless in Kakaako — who have matched wits with authorities hamstrung by jurisdictional limitations — enters a new phase Monday intended to keep them from shuffling between city sidewalks and state parks in a frustrating cycle that has done little to fix the problem.
City officials plan to send Honolulu police into state-owned Kakaako Waterfront Park and adjacent parks starting at 11 p.m. to sweep an estimated 80 — mostly chronically — homeless people.
The move comes after multi-jurisdictional land ownership around the picturesque, oceanfront Kakaako Waterfront Park helped spur the growth of one of America’s largest homeless encampments in the summer of 2015 when it swelled to more than 300 people and led to a spike in crimes, emergency calls and sanitation problems.
At the same time that they’re preparing for Monday night’s unprecedented sweep, city officials are working with the Hawaii Community Development Authority to transfer ownership of the 25-acre Kakaako Waterfront Park; Kakaako Gateway Mauka Park on the edge of Ala Moana Boulevard; Kakaako Gateway Makai Park; and Kewalo Basin Park to the city, among other smaller state-owned parcels in the area that make up a total of 41 acres.
BY THE NUMBERS
>> $331,000: Annual cost for the Hawaii Community Development Authority to pay for private security to enforce park rules.
>> 80: Estimated number of homeless people living in and around Kakaako Waterfront Park, most of them chronically homeless.
>> 41: Combined acreage of Kakaako Waterfront Park, Kakaako Gateway Mauka Park, Kakaako Gateway Makai Park, Kewalo Basin Park and smaller state parcels proposed to be transferred to the city.
>> 6: Number of hours — from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. daily — the parks will be closed, which will allow legal access for early morning surfers.
A vote on the ownership transfer by the HCDA’s board could come as early as Wednesday, or possibly at HCDA’s June meeting, said Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong.
But city officials aren’t waiting to get fee simple title to the parks before beginning their first homeless sweep inside state-owned Kakaako Waterfront Park, although they prefer to use the term “enforcement action” instead of sweep.
After HCDA granted the city “right of entry” into the Kakaako state parks on Wednesday, “we want the city to go in there and enforce its parks rules and regulations as soon as possible,” Leong told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “This is the first time that the city is enforcing its park rules and regulations in the HCDA’s parks.”
The arrangement is similar to the largely successful effort that began in August in Aiea to keep homeless people swept from the city’s Neal S. Blaisdell Park from simply setting up camp on the adjacent Navy-owned land that runs along the shoreline of the park.
Last year the city and Navy reached an agreement to allow Honolulu police and a special city maintenance crew to clear the stretch of Navy land that runs along the popular Pearl Harbor Bike Path.
On Friday, both the park and bike path remained clear of tents and tarps that had lined the bike path before the city was allowed to gain access.
Frustrated residents and visitors typically don’t care about whose land homeless people are sleeping on. But the city usually gets the blame, just as people often complain to the city about road conditions on state-owned Ala Moana Boulevard, the Nimitz and Pali highways and even the three state-owned freeways on Oahu, said city spokesman Andrew Pereira.
“It’s often the case where folks come to us with complaints about roads and areas that are not under city jurisdiction,” Pereira said. “We help when we can. But our resources are limited just like the state.”
The separate transfer of the Kakaako parks to the city would ease the pressure on the HCDA, which has been paying a private security company called Block by Block $331,000 annually to enforce park rules, although Block by Block has no police powers.
Kakaako Waterfront Park and its sister parks “should have always gone to an agency that deals with parks,” said Garett Kamemoto, the HCDA’s interim executive director. “We’re a redevelopment agency and so what we do is make improvements and then we dedicate the improvements to the people most able to take care of them. Kakaako Waterfront was always intended to be dedicated to the city. It just didn’t get done. Now the park can be handled by people who are experts in parks.”
The parks opened in phases in the early 1990s and were never transferred to the city through changing state and city administrations.
State and city officials — who continue to wrestle with the nation’s highest per capita homeless population — spent the summer of 2015 sweeping the people living in Kakaako encampments from state, city and private land around Kakaako.
At the same time, social service agencies teamed up to find temporary and permanent housing for hundreds of homeless people, including dozens of families with children.
Three years later, homeless people who remain around Kakaako have learned that they can elude law enforcement sweeps by moving back and forth between state parks and onto city sidewalks.
Kamemoto acknowledged that the on-going presence of mostly chronically homeless people “may be one of the catalysts that got this thing going again.”
Block by Block is doing a good job enforcing the parks’ 10 p.m. closure hours, Kamemoto said, but many homeless people are “just going on the city sidewalks. Visually it doesn’t look very good.”
Ross Sasamura, who oversaw the 2015 Kakaako clean-up and continues to run the city’s special cleanup crew of homeless encampments on city property, said, “You’re not going to see the issues we faced before with separate authority. … Otherwise, there are other points of refuge.”
People frustrated by the state of Kakaako Waterfront Park and its nearby parks, Sasamura said, “can expect consistent enforcement.”
One of the issues before the HCDA is whether to approve a city request to continue paying $600,000 a year in maintenance and security contracts — including the $331,000 to Block by Block — through June 30, 2019.
It’s too late in the city’s budget process to absorb such high costs, Leong said.
In response to concerns expressed at this month’s HCDA meeting, Leong was adamant that Mayor Kirk Caldwell has no intention of imposing paid parking at Kakaako Waterfront Park.
Caldwell wants beach parks to be “fully accessible to everyone,” Leong said. “He loves parks. You know he loves parks.”
Even though the city does not yet have title to the parks, officials plan to replace the HCDA’s green park rule signs with blue ones from the city.
The change is more than cosmetic.
The city’s new rules allow access to Kakaako Waterfront Park starting at 4 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., which will allow “dawn patrol” surfers to legally walk through the park to get to their favorite breaks.
The earlier park opening, however, also allows homeless people to move back into Kakaako Waterfront Park two hours earlier.
But since Sasamura’s crew also will be enforcing the city’s separate stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances on the sidewalks around the parks, homeless people will no longer be able to take advantage of conflicting jurisdictions by simply walking back and forth a few feet.
The people currently living in the parks are well known to police and social workers, said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing. Many have substance abuse or mental health issues and have declined offers of assistance for years, he said.
“They’re among the most difficult clients we have,” Alexander said. “Most are known by name by the (social service) providers.”
At the same time, city officials are notifying private landowners around the parks to be on hand starting at 11 p.m. Monday to request that police enforce trespassing violations in case homeless people try to move onto their property, Leong said.
“If they don’t want people to come onto their lot, they need to be there,” Leong said.
After Monday night’s planned sweep, Leong said HPD officers and the city’s special cleanup crew will return regularly in the days that follow.
As usual, Leong said, the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance crew will store any personal belongings they seize, as the courts have ordered, but will immediately dispose of any obvious trash or human waste.
Given the homeless history of Kakaako Waterfront Park and the persistent presence of homeless people following three years of sweeps, Leong tried to manage the public’s expectations.
At a combined 41 acres, Leong said, the parks encompass “a large area.”
“We’re going to do our best,” she said. “We can just try our best.”