A Hawaii Community Development Authority board member wants to temporarily shut down Kakaako Makai Gateway Park to “break the cycle” of constant sweeps to clear out the homeless only to see the camps return the next day.
HCDA board Vice President Steve Scott acknowledged that his idea will not end long-term homelessness. But he maintained that shutting down Kakaako Makai for weeks of cleanup and maintenance will force people to move somewhere else instead of simply walking across Ala Moana Boulevard during weekly sweeps, then returning the next morning starting at 6 a.m.
Scott plans to talk to other board members before making a formal proposal, but said he believes HCDA “has the authority to close the parks for maintenance. Personally, at Gateway Park I would shut it down. I would love to see us just shut it down, close it up and go in and clean it up. There’s needles, there’s drug paraphernalia. We have to break this cycle where they’re just moving out to the sidewalk and — as soon as that firm cleans it out and is gone — they come back.”
Scott doesn’t want Kakaako Makai permanently closed, “because it is a public park.”
At one point in August, 293 people were counted living in wood-reinforced tarps and tents around the park and the University of Hawaii’s medical school and Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.
The city spent six weeks methodically clearing out the encampment, but dozens of tents and tarps sprouted up again within days.
On Tuesday an estimated 55 to 75 people were living in 35 to 55 tents and structures in the area, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.
“It fluctuates on a daily basis,” Morishige said.
“Part of the challenge is that the individuals who are remaining in Kakaako have a high level of need,” he said. “They’ve been unsheltered for a long period of time, and we’ve reached the point that those individuals who are left are the most difficult to serve.”
One person with “mental health and behavioral concerns” has been homeless for 10 years, Morishige said.
Social service outreach workers continue to work with the person, “but it does take time to provide the right type of support and the right level of resources,” Morishige said. “Many of the individuals are trying to find housing but don’t have any ID at all. If you don’t have a picture ID or Social Security card or birth certificate, it’s very hard to move on. And some have criminal records preventing them from accessing housing or employment. But we are continuing to offer outreach services hand in hand with enforcement efforts.”
Scott described persistent unhealthy conditions.
“There’s a tremendous health hazard right now in Kakaako,” he said. “Surfers tell me they see people early in the morning take buckets of their waste right off of Point Panic and dump their waste right on the rocks there. This is not acceptable. It’s terrible. Surfers are looking at the possibility of infections. You see things floating by.”
Since December two sister companies — Got-Junk? and You Move Me — have been cleaning out the encampments every week or so, said HCDA spokeswoman Lindsey Doi.
The HCDA was allocated up to $287,000 to clear and store homeless people’s belongings as part of a series of emergency proclamations that Gov. David Ige began signing last year.
The cleanup crews are backed by state sheriff’s deputies, but “there’s been no incidents,” Doi said. “They don’t dig their heels and say, ‘We’re not leaving.’ By the time we get there, many of them are gone already. They go elsewhere, and at 6 a.m. you see what you see.”
“They’re back the very next day,” Scott said. “You could do this every day, and that money would be depleted very quickly. It’s just very frustrating and very discouraging. A day does not go by that there is not a fistfight. There are arguments.”
The situation in Kakaako has come to define Hawaii’s struggles with the largest per capita homeless population in the country.
Scott’s also frustrated that a planned second homeless shelter in Kakaako is on hold.
The discovery of a damaged sewage pumping station at an old HCDA maintenance shed has forced architects to rethink plans to convert it into a family shelter designed to hold a maximum of 15 families — or 60 people — at any given time, Morishige said.
Architects now have to redesign the position of the shelter’s showers and bathrooms and make them comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Morishige said.
Even with the setback, Morishige said the goal is to open the shelter “as quickly as possible, and I know that’s not a hard, solid deadline. There’s an increasing number of children growing up on sidewalks, and we want to address that situation quickly.”
Thus, Scott’s impatience.
“It’s just very frustrating to see a lot of talk but very little concrete solutions — or even progress toward a solution,” Scott said.
Nick Cutter, president and CEO of Cutter Management Co., said Cutter Chevrolet, Cutter Mazda and Cutter Chrysler Jeep Dodge, which sit on either side of the park, have been vandalized frequently.
But Cutter remains compassionate.
“There’s been some minor damage and theft issues, and sometimes we’ll get cars broken into,” Cutter said. “It’s cars that are for sale, employee cars, service cars. I’m not saying it’s the homeless. But it certainly seems like when they’re there there are higher (damage) claims. But we don’t really know who’s doing it.”
Cutter could not say whether the presence of a high-profile homeless encampment along Ala Moana Boulevard has hurt business.
“It does cause some problems,” Cutter said. “But I have compassion for their plight. I believe that we are very fortunate here in America and we are very fortunate, in particular, in Hawaii. I really believe the less fortunate should be helped by the more fortunate.”
Cutter then added, “The form it takes? I don’t have all the answers, and nobody has asked me, quite frankly.”
As for his own hopes for a long-term solution to Kakaako’s homeless population, Cutter said, “I haven’t heard of anything from the government agencies that would point to that, to be honest with you. But I am an optimist.”
“I don’t think it’s a lack of knowledge that’s the problem,” Cutter said. “It’s the lack of viable solutions at this point.”