The city’s crackdown on Waikiki’s homeless inadvertently spawned a new and rapidly growing problem just up Kapahulu Avenue where two dozen homeless people have set up camp around the Market City Shopping Center, which has since lost "a few customers" while spending thousands of dollars trying to keep the center’s bathrooms sanitary.
Several of the newly arrived homeless people told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week that they moved to three sections under the H-1 freeway overpass at Kapahulu and Harding avenues after the city’s "sit-lie" ban pushed them out of Waikiki over the last three months.
Russell Mori, 59, estimates that he’s been forced to move six times in the last year and most recently pitched his tent on a concrete median under the freeway, which offers protection from the sun and rain while providing overhead lighting.
PINPOINTING TROUBLE SPOTS
Department of Transportation officials send out maintenance crews twice a year in response to complaints about homeless living on DOT land on Oahu. Callers can help identify locations by calling DOT’s Highways Division at 831-6714.
"I used to live at Ala Moana Beach Park but got swept," Mori said. "I like it here."
After being forced out of Waikiki, Mori’s neighbor — a 56-year-old homeless man who would give only his first name, Oliver — also ended up at the intersection because "you sleep better at night because we don’t get hassled," he said. "I was looking for a spot and this is where I landed."
Unlike Waikiki, there is no ocean view, public showers or bathrooms.
But homeless people such as Ewa Gahuman, 44, said Honolulu police leave them alone because they are on land owned by the state Department of Transportation, which has no law enforcement powers.
"We’re always worried about the heat," she said. "Here, we don’t get hassled."
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who represents the area, supported sit-lie, but worried about the ramifications.
"I voted for sit-lie in Waikiki to protect the tourism industry," Kobayashi said. "But I said they’re just going to move across the Ala Wai to my district, and that’s what happened. We knew this would cause more problems. I don’t know what to do now."
While the encampment is still relatively small, it’s grown exponentially in the last three months.
As word spreads among the homeless about the lenient situation at Harding and Kapahulu, Kobayashi and others worry that it could mushroom into the kind of entrenched encampment that now surrounds the University of Hawaii medical school, Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center and Kakaako Waterfront Park, where state, city and private lands converge and jurisdictions and enforcement are tricky.
On June 29, state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked while photographing the tents and tarpaulins in Kakaako that are packed next to one another and reinforced with plywood and wooden pallets. Inside, some homeless people watch DVDs and play video games on large flat-screen televisions run off of gas-powered generators. They also get fed by churches and nonprofit groups and have access to toilets and showers at Kakaako Waterfront Park.
So for businesses, neighbors and government officials concerned about the growing homeless encampment at Kapahulu and Harding avenues, the area represents the latest challenge in trying to deal with a homeless problem that continues to have no simple solutions.
DOT officials plan to clean out several homeless encampments on DOT land in the next few weeks and the stretch along Harding Avenue will be one of the first, said agency spokesman Tim Sakahara. But just like the persistent homeless encampment underneath the H-1 viaduct that also will be cleared out in August, Sakahara said the homeless are likely to return to Harding Avenue "right after we clean it up."
The DOT every February and August takes one to two weeks clearing homeless encampments on DOT land at a cost between $250,000 and $300,000 for each sweep.
The work involves an estimated 50 DOT maintenance workers who otherwise would be patching potholes, clearing out drains, trimming trees, sweeping streets and fixing everything from broken streetlights to road signs to guardrails, Sakahara said.
The maintenance crews are typically joined by 20 prisoners from Oahu Community Correctional Center, state sheriff’s deputies, Honolulu police officers and "a small fleet of heavy vehicles, including dump trucks and front-end loaders," Sakahara said.
"We’ve found that without a place for the houseless individuals to go, the cleanup events are ineffective in permanently clearing an area of houseless dwellers as they return soon after the event," he said.
DOT officials will continue to send out maintenance crews twice a year in response to complaints about homeless living on DOT land on Oahu.
For now, businesses around Kapahulu and Harding avenues are frustrated by the growing encampment.
Kobayashi has been contacted by businesses at Market City and at the nearby Kilohana Square Shopping Center complaining that they have to wash down urine and feces every morning.
"They’re losing longtime customers who say they’re afraid to go there," Kobayashi said. "It’s just unfair all these businesses are suffering. It’s getting bad and I’m concerned."
Because the homeless along Harding and Kapahulu avenues have no access to showers or bathrooms, they told the Star-Advertiser, they urinate and defecate in buckets in their tents. They were evasive when asked what they do with their waste.
One said she has the access codes to the customer bathrooms at Market City Shopping Center. Another who declined to be interviewed emerged from his tent with a transparent container full of yellow fluid and carried it across Harding Avenue toward Market City.
Michael Anduha, a lot technician and salesman at the KIC Motors used-car lot just a few yards makai of the homeless encampment, said he frequently has to clean garbage left at the entrance to the business and often chases away homeless people who use the lot’s garden hose as a shower.
Three weeks ago, while cleaning up the rubbish, Anduha found a rice pot filled with human feces.
"I almost threw up," he said. "It was disgusting. It’s bad for business."
Market City Shopping Center has lost "a few customers" since the encampment has grown, said Sandra Au Fong, president of Market City Ltd.
The center’s had problems with homeless people before, including a 2013 incident when a homeless person was arrested for pushing a security guard down a flight of stairs. The security guard nearly died, Fong said.
But the concerns — and costs — have only increased in the last few months.
Hypodermic needles have been found at the shopping center and homeless people have been caught using the center’s spigots for water and electrical outlets to charge their cellphones. They also get into customer bathrooms and use up all of the paper towels and toilet paper to dry off after bathing in the sinks, Fong said.
"Then they shove the paper towels down the toilet and back up the sewer," Fong said. "I don’t understand it. We’ve spent thousands of dollars spraying the bathrooms to sanitize them."
The center swapped out the paper towel dispensers for hand dryers, but homeless people still jam toilet paper down the toilets until they overflow, Fong said.
In the last few months, the 24-hour Foodland that anchors Market City also has hired a guard to watch the store at night "because the employees are afraid," Fong said. "It’s a huge problem for us. We have emails from our customers who say that it looks terrible and it’s intimidating and they don’t want to come."
Market City has paid to install a lock on an outdoor water spigot and will be bringing in more security cameras. It’s also repeatedly repaired an outlet that the homeless use to charge their cellphones.
"We fix it, they break it," Fong said. "We fix it, they break it again."
While DOT officials know that clearing tents and other belongings along Harding Avenue will offer only a temporary fix, Fong has placed her hopes with city and state officials to find permanent answers that so far have eluded them.
"I hope they find a solution," Fong said. "You can’t move the homeless because they just go somewhere else."