Thirty or so homeless people camping out in Kakaako’s Makai Gateway Park along Ala Moana Boulevard were packing up and preparing to be kicked out of the area in a sweep again Monday night, but — just like usual — planned to return this morning.
Notices went up on palm trees around the park Monday as Nora Ventura, 55, outlined her plans for the night:
“Everybody just goes across the street and waits until morning time and then moves right back,” said Ventura, who’s been living in the park for the last six weeks since her van was towed and she had no money to bail it out of the impound yard.
The city spent six weeks last year methodically clearing out the encampment that at one point in August accounted for 293 people living in wood-reinforced tarps and tents that wound around the University of Hawaii medical school and Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.
While the streets and sidewalks belong to the city, all of the parks in the area are on state-owned land belonging to the Hawaii Community Development Authority.
HCDA board Vice President Steve Scott is among those frustrated that the homeless keep returning.
“If they’re given 24 hours’ notice, that’s when they move across the street,” Scott said. “That’s the frustrating part. Even though there are beds and room for them in the shelters, they will not go. We discuss the homeless situation at every meeting. We continue to have it on the agenda every month because nothing changes.”
Last year the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii sued the city in federal court and won an order that prevents city cleanup crews from immediately destroying homeless property they seize. In the aftermath, HCDA officials have been working to develop policies that will survive potential legal challenges.
In December, the HCDA began enforcing park closure hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. through four to five sweeps per week, “just to get people used to the idea that you cannot stay overnight in the park,” said HCDA spokeswoman Lindsey Doi. “There was a heavy push in December that tapered off in January.”
Since February, the sweeps have been conducted about once per week, Doi said.
Immediately after the city cleared out the area last year, Scott estimated, the homeless population plummeted to about 30 to 40.
“Now we’re up close to 100,” Scott said. “We’re getting back into the same situation where we were a year ago. It isn’t improving and, as a matter of fact, it’s getting worse.”
Some homeless people at night are lighting “little campfires, which is against the law, and nothing’s being done about it,” Scott said. “If you want to clear them out of the park, do it every night, if you have to, to set an example and make a statement that, ‘This is not what we’re going to accept. You’re going to have to find accommodations elsewhere.’”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, disputed Scott’s numbers.
“The population fluctuates from night to night,” he said. “I think 100 is too high.”
As of Sunday night, Morishige said the population was actually 46.
“I would say it’s generally between 45 and 60 people at any given time,” he added.
At the same time, Morishige said, homeless service providers since August have relocated 230 homeless people from Kakaako into shelters or long-term housing.
But others, including the family of one of the boys allegedly involved in the June attack on state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) simply moved back to Kakaako.
“They chase us and push us around,” said Totoa Totoa, 40, whose teenage son continues to live in the encampment. “There’s a sweep tonight (Monday). We break down and go across the street. They can’t touch us there.”
Like others living in Makai Gateway Park on Monday, Les Manibog, 52, said the ongoing homeless sweeps have little effect on reducing the largest per capita homeless population in the country.
“How in the world are they going to fix this problem by pushing us around and criminalizing us?” Manibog asked. “Why is it a crime to be homeless?”