From the barren slopes of Diamond Head to the dense foliage around Lake Wilson, residents are warily watching more homeless people move into their communities across Oahu.
Neighbors hope the emerging encampments don’t mushroom into entrenched settlements like the one in Kakaako, where violence and lawlessness are increasing among the warren of tents and tarps.
Dean Harvest, vice chairman of the Wahiawa Neighborhood Board, took his wife out to enjoy a nice dinner three weeks ago only to see a homeless man drop his pants on Wahiawa’s main drag, California Avenue, and defecate on the sidewalk.
Wahiawa is no stranger to homeless people. But Harvest senses the population has increased as city and state officials continue to search for long-term solutions.
Harvest estimates that Wahiawa town and Lake Wilson host “between a couple hundred (homeless people) to maybe a few hundred on the high end.”
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Hidden around Lake Wilson, Harvest said, “There are families with kids living in shanty shacks in tarps and tents.”
On the other end of the island, neighbors are watching two homeless encampments on Diamond Head — one tucked among the ridges above Diamond Head Lighthouse and another on the Waikiki side of Kapiolani Community College. They also believe some homeless people could be living in caves along the shoreline below Diamond Head Road.
A 56-year-old homeless man who would give only his first name, Oliver, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he used to live at Diamond Head but left because the other homeless people “were too hard-core.” Instead, Oliver ended up at a rapidly growing encampment across from Market City Shopping Center after the city’s “sit-lie” ban forced him out of Waikiki about three months ago.
Steven Maier sympathizes with the homeless people living above his house on the KCC side of Diamond Head. But he doesn’t appreciate the abuse he receives when he asks them to not use his garden hose as a drinking fountain.
“I have a lot of compassion for the homeless,” Maier said. “They’ve got to be somewhere. But I’ve had a couple of run-ins where they’ll say, ‘We know where you live. You’re going to hell.’”
Concerns about the growing Kakaako encampment escalated after state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked June 29 while photographing the tents and tarps that are packed in around the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, University of Hawaii medical school and Kakaako Waterfront Park.
The attack on Brower also highlighted complaints about criminal activity in Kakaako, which has seen assaults skyrocket in the last few months.
In the first six months of this year, Honolulu police responded to 29 “simple assault” reports for the beat that encompasses the Kakaako homeless encampment — compared with 13 in the first half of 2014. At the same time, the category of “aggravated assault” jumped from one report in the first half of 2014 to seven in the first six months of this year.
State sheriff’s deputies, who have joint jurisdiction for the area that includes Kakaako Waterfront Park, saw the number of its “assault” responses increase from six in May to 11 in June to five for just the first 11 days of July. The rate of July’s assault cases would outpace May and June.
Brower has been visiting homeless people in the nine years that he’s been in office and contends that, in general, they’ve become “hardened and aggressive” as they continue to be chased around the island.
Brower has seen them return to well-known sites such as Thomas Square and Old Stadium Park in Moiliili, where a 22-year-old man was left in serious condition after being stabbed multiple times just before 6 p.m. July 18. A week before, on July 11, another man suffered multiple and critical stab wounds to the back shortly after 2 a.m. near the Kapalama Canal homeless encampment.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s spokesman, said Kapalama Canal represents the largest encampment currently on city property.
“The city has been highly successful at removing encampments at a lot of highly visible places where there used to be a lot of complaints when Mayor Caldwell took office in 2013, such as along Kalakaua Avenue including at the old Hard Rock location, the zoo, the sidewalks, and more, along the Ala Wai Promenade, at Pawaa In Ha Park, at the Moiliili field, in Chinatown, in city parks all along the leeward coast, in Ala Moana Beach Park, at the Hawaii Kai Park and Ride, at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park, and numerous other locations all over Oahu,” Broder Van Dyke wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “Although problem areas most certainly do persist, many of the most visible areas have been successfully addressed.”
He added, “Many of the remaining encampments are on state property, such as the Waianae Boat Harbor, under the Nimitz overpass by the airport, and in (Hawaii Community Development Authority) jurisdiction in Kakaako.”
The Star-Advertiser spent a week visiting new and entrenched homeless sites across the island and Broder Van Dyke’s assessment is essentially correct.
The Star-Advertiser found no tents or tarps in Kahala or at the top of Pupukea Road, where some residents in both areas have complained about homeless people. And while there were homeless people in the city’s Thomas Square and Old Stadium Park, the makeshift shelters that once covered city sidewalks around the parks were gone.
Several dozen homeless people remain in an encampment on state land at the entrance to the Waianae Boat Harbor. But the population is dramatically smaller compared with when former Gov. Linda Lingle and community members, nonprofit groups, social service providers and churches started finding alternative housing for people who once lined a 16-mile stretch along the Leeward Coast that peaked in size in the mid-2000s.
“We already have the largest number of homeless on the island, but we take care of them differently,” said Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who represents the area. “Church members are involved, everyone’s involved to lift them up and get them the help that they need. The people in my district don’t treat them so horribly as elsewhere because so many residents have been there themselves.”
Pine called the city’s new sit-lie law “the stupidest idea ever.” She added: “Sit-lie has created mass chaos in other districts. Each time the homeless get moved they get more violent. Their stress is high because they’re constantly worried about where they’re going to get food for the day.”
Beginning in mid-August, the state Department of Transportation plans to spend $250,000 to $300,000 to clear out encampments on DOT land, including ones under the H-1 viaduct. But Transportation Department spokesman Tim Sakahara said the roughly two-week cleanup will provide no long-term solution because homeless people are expected to quickly return.
Other landowners are doing what they can in response to complaints at places like Diamond Head, but also have little hope that they can provide long-term solutions.
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, for example, plans to install a bigger gate designed to block access to its road that leads up to a reservoir on the KCC side of Diamond Head. But BWS spokeswoman Shawn Nakamoto said the new barrier will not prevent homeless people from simply walking around it and accessing their encampments from state land.
“There are indications that some of them are going up the road that leads to our gated property and we are doing our part to protect our property,” Nakamoto said. “But there’s an empty lot next to our driveway and we don’t own that.”
Other major landowners such as Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs also discourage homelessness on their property.
“Kamehameha Schools shares the community’s concerns about homelessness,” spokesman Kekoa Paulsen said. “It affects everyone, and has a particularly deep impact on the safety, health and well-being of keiki and kupuna who are in this situation. With so many lives affected, we recognize that this is an issue no one entity can tackle on its own. Rather, it is kuleana that extends into the community. Kamehameha Schools wants to be part of a larger discussion, joining with other educators, public and private agencies and community leaders, to contribute to effective strategies that lead to real solutions.”
OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamana‘opono Crabbe said, “The Office of Hawaiian Affairs does not allow trespassing on any of our properties. Our duty is to protect the land and our trust. Homeless encampments pose a liability and health and safety risk for OHA.”
All of the attitudes, approaches and efforts so far leave Diamond Head residents such as Scott Ballentyne unsatisfied and sometimes outright angry.
“I’m not calling them homeless,” Ballentyne said. “They’re bums. They’ll scream and shout at the moon. They leave trash and (defecate) all over the place. Cars have been broken into and they’ve broken into houses, including mine.”
Ballentyne also worries about camping — or cooking — fires that he sees at night on the slopes of Diamond Head and gets frustrated when he tries to get any landowner, government or law enforcement agency to respond.
“It just goes round and round,” Ballentyne said. “There’s a clear sign saying, ‘don’t trespass.’ But who’s taking responsibility for getting these people out? Every government agency just wants to shuck off responsibility to another government agency. No one wants to take responsibility.”
TO OUR READERS
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now are joining forces to report on the ever-worsening homelessness crisis.
While both news organizations will continue to report daily stories on homelessness, we will work together on bigger projects that delve into all aspects of the issue. To reach the widest possible audience for these important projects on this crisis, you will see reports in print, online and on broadcasts.
For example, on this page of the Star-Advertiser and in Hawaii News Now broadcasts on Monday, you will find stories on homeless encampments you might not be aware of and learn details about some of them.
Through stories such as these, we hope to raise awareness among the public — and public officials — about the gravity of the situation and the need to take action to help the homeless and, by doing so, help our community.
Both newsrooms hope you, as readers and viewers, will help with this project by offering comments, observations and suggestions online and in letters to the editor. While a collaboration between two competing newsrooms is unusual, Hawaii’s homelessness crisis requires an unusual approach.