No buildings or land have been found to accommodate people who will be removed from an expanding homeless encampment in Kakaako, but the city still plans to start clearing out occupants sometime next month, Managing Director Roy Amemiya told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
Amemiya estimated that the encampment around the University of Hawaii medical school and Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center has grown to about 300 people, who live in wood-reinforced tents and tarps that are packed together and often powered by gas-fueled generators and propane tanks.
It’s now up to the new Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness to find temporary or permanent housing for the homeless living in Kakaako, where city, state and private lands converge.
“One of the top priorities for the Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness is to identify and assign parcels of land for the creation of temporary shelters in one or two communities,” said Jodi Leong, spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige. “The team will also work to identify and implement short-term actions to assist homeless people and mitigate the impacts of encampments in our communities.”
Buildings and vacant land already identified belong to the state, state Department of Transportation, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hawaii Community Development Authority, Amemiya said.
“Sites have been identified but nothing has been confirmed,” he said.
Honolulu police officers and city homeless coordinators sometime next month will start giving notices of up to seven days to those living on still-unidentified streets farthest away from the main encampment around Ohe and Olomehani streets directly behind the Discovery Center, Amemiya said.
They will clear entire streets before moving on to the next street, he said.
As the first homeless are moved out, city officials hope that others deeper into the encampment will begin leaving voluntarily.
“Hopefully they’ll start moving into shelters,” Amemiya said.
Many of the homeless occupants have told the Star-Advertiser that they moved into Kakaako over the last several months after the city’s “sit-lie” ban forced them out of places such as Waikiki.
“What we don’t want them to do is go back to Waikiki or Ala Moana park or other areas that have been cleared up,” Amemiya said.
Assaults in the Kakaako encampment have skyrocketed, and it has been the focus of intense scrutiny since state Rep. Tom Brower was attacked by a mob June 29 while taking photographs at the intersection of Ohe and Olomehani streets.
After the assault on Brower, Amemiya said, Honolulu police told city officials “this has the potential to become a large problem, and enforcement needs to take place at some point.”
Amemiya spoke to the Star-Advertiser after telling reporters Tuesday at a Honolulu Hale news conference that it was too costly for the city to make a bid to take over the lease on the bankrupt Hilo Hattie property on Nimitz Highway to house the homeless.
City Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents the area, said the 84,678-square-foot location could have easily accommodated 500 homeless family members and up to 800 in an emergency.
“I’m very disappointed,” Manahan said after the city failed to make an offer by Monday’s deadline. “It’s a real missed opportunity.”
Amemiya said the project would have required “a significant initial financial commitment of approximately $7.6 million, followed by an estimated $1.8 million annual operating deficit over 24 years totaling approximately $43.2 million for the remaining term of the lease.”
He added, “These operating expenses do not include the cost of providing services to up to 800 residents at a cost of approximately $20,252 per person per year, or up to $16.2 million annually.”
The City Council has set aside bond funds for such projects, Amemiya said, but by law they “cannot be used to cover operating expenses for the building nor the social services.”
“Making such a substantial, long-term investment in a shelter as proposed at the Hilo Hattie property would take away tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise go towards building permanent housing,” he said.
Although Manahan envisioned homeless families living in separated units, Amemiya said they would have been provided “only cot space” that could result in “extreme social ramifications, and it is questionable whether homeless will choose to accept such shelter.”
At the unusual joint news conference Monday led by Ige, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the effort to remove homeless people from Kakaako will have to proceed slowly because there is no space big enough to accommodate all of them.
The Hilo Hattie site would have included on-site social services to help homeless families with their issues. And it had the benefit of being away from residential neighbors, Manahan said.
Only one bidder met Monday’s deadline to submit an offer to acquire the rights to lease the property for the 24 years remaining on a 25-year lease, Manahan said.
He said the city would have won the bid if it could have offered $7 million to $7.5 million, with the condition that it also would have had to pay an estimated $500,000 to $1 million in annual rent to the Weinberg Foundation property owner.
“We always knew we would have to subsidize this operation,” Manahan said. “If we truly had an all-hands approach, a true partnership of city, state and social service providers, we could have made it work.”
On Monday, Ige announced the creation of the Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness, which will include himself, Caldwell, state Sen. Jill Tokuda, state Rep. Sylvia Luke, state Director of Human Services Rachael Wong, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and representatives of U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono.
Manahan supports the new committee.
“I’m glad the governor’s doing that,” Manahan said. “We’ve been appealing to him to coordinate. There’s a lot of hope there because it’s the first time I’ve seen the city and state come together on this issue from an executive standpoint.”
But giving up on the Hilo Hattie location, Manahan said, represented “a real missed opportunity.”
“I would have understood if we made a bid and lost it,” he said. “But to not try at all, I don’t understand that. I’m saying we can’t afford not to do it. We spend more on sweeps than we would have spent subsidizing Hilo Hattie. Especially when it comes to homeless families, we need to be compassionate. It would have been ideal.”