Honolulu’s last attempt at a city-sanctioned tent city — between 1990 and 1993 — ended in failure after a night of “wilding” that included an attempted murder and a trail of crime scenes.
But one of the people in charge of quickly erecting the tent city under then-Mayor Frank Fasi in Chinatown’s Aala Park likes the current ideas he’s hearing about how the next government-sanctioned tent city might be organized on Oahu to address the country’s largest per capita rate of homelessness.
“We need the cooperation of social service agencies and all of the government agencies,” said Alvin Au, who was Fasi’s deputy director of parks and recreation.
Au is now a 70-year-old attorney who works for the inspector general’s office for the 25th Infantry Division and is also a member of the Chinatown neighborhood board, which constantly deals with homelessness issues. He’s also running as a Democrat for the House district that includes Iwilei.
The failure of the Aala Park tent city offers plenty of lessons, according to both Au and the retired Honolulu police detective who investigated the night of “wilding” — as The Honolulu Advertiser called it — that led to the quick end of the Aala Park experiment.
“You have to have a program that relies on accountability,” said retired HPD Capt. Letha DeCaires. In 1993 DeCaires was a detective in charge of the HPD investigation of the crime spree that began with a group of homeless people drinking in Aala Park.
The idea of another city-sanctioned tent city somewhere on Oahu is gaining traction among some City Council members who, since last year, have visited Seattle, which embraces tent cities.
In January two people were shot to death in one of Seattle’s notorious, unsanctioned tent cities called “The Jungle,” not far from one of the city-backed tent cities on private land.
Federal officials with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness discourage tent cities. They say no community that relies on them has been successful in reducing homelessness — and they often become a community distraction, getting in the way of real solutions.
In Seattle, where the homeless population jumped 19 percent in the latest national Point in Time Count, tent cities are supposed to move to different locations every few years.
Although some include traditional camping tents, they primarily rely on 120-square-foot “tiny houses” to comply with zoning regulations.
The occupants elect leaders who organize various committees and job assignments, including mandatory security watches to keep out strangers and to maintain rules prohibiting drinking and drug use and other behaviors that can get people kicked out.
Last month City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga toured some of Seattle’s tent cities — and other homeless projects — with Council members Ann Kobayashi and Ron Menor. Fukunaga called Seattle’s tent cities “fascinating and quite interesting.”
“They have a communal cooking area, restrooms and showers, plumbing and electrical,” she said. “For some groups of homeless communities, that might be a workable, temporary solution. It was very inspiring.”
Menor said Seattle’s tent cities “instill a sense of ownership on the part of the residents who are charged with these responsibilities to make sure these projects are running well.”
Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who toured Seattle last year, has vowed to have the first modern-era, government-backed tent city go up somewhere in his district, which covers 40 percent of Oahu and ranges from Central Oahu to the North Shore.
“The key first and foremost is to get community buy-in,” Martin said. “Otherwise they have limited chance of succeeding.”
There was little thought given in 1990 about how the Aala Park tent city would operate when it was hastily implemented out of frustration.
“The mayor was very disgusted with all of the homelessness,” Au said. “He gathered a couple of us and said, ‘How about converting Aala Park into a temporary shelter?’ — because there were a lot of homeless individuals at the park at the time. We did a quick assessment and said, ‘We probably can do this.’”
The City Council approved a permit to change the park use to allow a “temporary tent city,” Au said, “but the Council did not question the longevity,” meaning how long it would operate.
Otherwise, the extent of the planning depended on Au and Parks and Recreation Director Walter Ozawa.
“We were both colonels in the Army Reserves, and we gave the mayor an operational plan to construct a tent city that included portable toilets, portable showers and a tent that people could sleep under,” Au said. “But we didn’t know how many people we could house.”
The senior Army Reserve officers also had little idea about the kind of people that would move in, along with their tents.
No social service agencies wanted to get involved, so the project relied on a well-meaning pastor from Waianae, Au said.
Over the next two years, Au estimated, about 60 people — including children — were living in sometimes unsanitary conditions.
“We had reports of physical altercations and gangs in the camp,” Au said. “We were told there was drug paraphernalia and also weapons. After the first year we called in the SWAT team and had everyone walk out one by one to ensure they didn’t have any weapons. We found knives but we didn’t find any guns. We cleaned up the place and everybody came back in. Parks and Recreation was managing this tent city with no background in social welfare.”
Then came February 1993 — and the night of “wilding.”
“There were multiple crimes, multiple crime scenes,” DeCaires said.
It began with a group of drunken tent city occupants who ran out of liquor, she said.
They also had no money, DeCaires said, so they stole alcohol from a Hotel Street liquor store, which set off a wave of assaults that included an attack on an Advertiser editor on her way home.
“There was a theft at a liquor store and a robbery that included over a dozen stab wounds at the bus stop at Hotel and Alakea streets of a medical student, an armed robbery of the Honolulu Advertiser editor for her briefcase,” DeCaires said. “Then, an attorney tried to stop the robbery, and they turned on him and threatened him with a knife. Then a waiter riding a bike home from his shift tried to intervene and gave chase. They attacked him, causing a broken bone in his hand.”
She added, “They were flying gang colors. It was gang-related.”
After executing “search warrant after search warrant,” DeCaires found the knife involved in the attacks inside the Aala Park tent city.
She estimated there were as many as 75 people living in the encampment at the time. “There were problems the whole time,” she said.
It was all the result of hastily erecting a makeshift tent city without anticipating what could happen, DeCaires said.
Back in 1990 “they were just trying to throw up anything they could,” she said. “They didn’t think about the consequences and how it would affect the rest of the community.”
Following the night of wilding, Fasi ordered the tent city closed.
“The SWAT team came in unannounced at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Au said. “They marched in, asked everyone to leave. The park was in bad condition, and it took a few months to clean it up. We had to restore the park.”
Asked how many of the occupants found permanent housing after the experiment, Au said frankly, “We failed.”
“They just went back to being homeless on the streets again.”