The number of homeless encampments in Kakaako has exploded to more than 70 tents and structures in a few short weeks, pressing the Hawaii Community Development Authority to find creative solutions to a problem exacerbated by crackdowns around Oahu.
Most of the estimated 100 homeless campers line both sides of Ilalo Street, just makai of Ala Moana Boulevard on the way to the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Several campers, such as Wayne Kama, 54, set up their tents along Ilalo Street in the past few weeks after living in more visible places , such as Ala Moana Beach Park , that have been the focus of police sweeps.
"I saw some tents that was already here and I put up my tent," Kama said. "I’m not bothering anybody."
The HCDA oversees development in Kakaako. Over the next three weeks, rather than ask police or sheriff’s deputies to sweep the area, Executive Director Anthony Ching plans to increase ongoing outreach services, encourage homeless people to use nearby shelter space and provide security deposits for homeless people trying to rent apartments.
He’s driven, in part, by the scheduled opening at the end of February of a 7 1/2 -acre paved pay parking lot that Ching hopes won’t be overrun by homeless campers once construction walls come down.
"I need to address this situation proactively, from a land owner and community development standpoint," Ching said. "I don’t want it to get worse."
But he certainly does not expect to see all of the homeless people disappear from Kakaako.
The area is attractive to homeless people because it offers wide sidewalks and nearby public bathrooms, has few residents, and is outside of major tourist areas, Ching said.
The 200-bed Next Step Homeless Shelter near the UH medical school is generally full, although people regularly move in and out, said Utu Langi, executive director of Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope, a nonprofit group that manages the shelter.
But there are 15 to 20 bed spaces remaining in six buses that H5 set up for homeless people on Forrest Avenue on the Ewa side of the medical school.
H5 officials have been working with Ching for more than a year as the problem of homelessness in Kakaako has grown, exacerbated by the recent rain and cold nights.
"They’re obviously moving in from other places," Langi said.
The sudden increase in homeless people in the area has been startling to Anne Stevens, vice chairwoman of the Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board, who rides her bike through the area to snorkel at Kakaako Waterfront Park.
"There’s always been some, but I’m really surprised at the volume," Stevens said. "It’s never been this bad."
The area around Kakaako Waterfront Park and the UH medical school is a mix of city, state and private lands that Ching hopes won’t evolve into a complicated game of enforcing different land rules.
For more than a year, Ching has been getting to know people living on the streets and has seen some of the deep-rooted causes of homelessness.
Even though outreach workers provide information in Chuukese and Marshallese, some of the homeless people in Kakaako don’t "read or write in their own language," Ching said. "If we hope for them to be released from the bonds of homelessness, they will need to receive certain support services — how to communicate effectively, how to dress for an interview, what are the expectations at work?
"We’re not picking on the homeless as some might fear. Targeting homeless individuals in any particular area is likely to create another situation in another area. We’re just trying to show as much compassion as we’re able to address a community problem. There is no silver bullet, but we have to try."
For those who remain, however, Ching plans to tell them not to hang laundry, cook food on sidewalks or go to the bathroom outdoors on private and public property.
"My intention is to warn them that they’re producing piles of rubbish and using the bathroom on parcels of land," Ching said. "We’ll ask them to voluntarily leave. If not, we’ll pursue trespassing charges."
The Honolulu Police Department and the city Department of Community Services will continue to work with the Hawaii Community Development Authority in assisting homeless people in the area, city spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy said.
"Throughout the island, HPD responds to complaints but will only take enforcement action when law violations are involved," she said in a statement. "DCS helps homeless individuals who want assistance by directing them to appropriate service providers."
Mayor Peter Carlisle announced Friday that Honolulu had received $8.6 million in competitive federal grant funds to keep 22 homeless assistance programs operating during the next fiscal year.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care programs provide funding for transitional housing; services such as job training, health care, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and child care; and for permanent supportive housing for homeless people with disabilities, the city said.
"I am very pleased and grateful to HUD for its continuing support of these important local programs," Carlisle said in a statement. "These grants provide essential support to meet critical needs of individuals and families who experience homelessness in our community."
The Waikiki Health Center provides outreach services to the homeless in Kakaako and has seen the population grow as other parts of Oahu have been cleared, said Darlene Hein, director of community services.
"You’re seeing people pushed out of one area and all of a sudden they show up somewhere else," Hein said. "If people put up tents and nobody does anything, then more people come. I’ve been watching this area grow and it’s become quite a public encampment."
While H5 officials hope some of the homeless take advantage of bed space in their buses, Langi, the executive director, is well-aware that many of the so-called "chronic homeless" will never live in a shelter.
"They want no rules at all," Langi said. "It’s sad. There are no places in this world where there are no rules."
So homeless people like Creighton Niwa, 55, plan to remain on Ilalo Street for now.
He’s been living around Kakaako for the past 3 1/2 years and wants nothing to do with a shelter.
"I’d rather stay out here," Niwa said. "There are no curfews. It’s relaxing. And nobody bothers us."