The smell of urine emanated from the sidewalks of Iwilei on Monday as the city’s homeless enforcement team returned to once again break down makeshift shelters built out of cardboard, tarps and wooden pallets — one of hundreds of sweeps that have taken place since the cleanup crew was created more than three years ago.
Monday through Friday the so-called SPO/SNO Enforcement Team discards — and stores — tons of personal belongings from Oahu’s homeless encampments at a cost to the city of about $15,000 a week.
The team got its inelegant name from the two city ordinances it enforces: the stored property ordinance and the sidewalk nuisance ordinance. One enables the removal of private property on city land, and the other keeps sidewalks clear.
CLEANING UP AFTER THE HOMELESS
A special cleanup crew has collected tons of homeless people’s possessions and garbage since its creation in January 2013.
* Through Monday; includes material collected by an additional three-person team created in March 2015 to clear encampments from city parks
Source: City and County of Honolulu
But, as the residents and businesses of Iwilei have learned, the Monday sweeps only clear the area for the inevitable return of the area’s homeless.
Karen Manuluata, 25, and her boyfriend, Rick Tataishi, 34, spent the night on state-owned Nimitz Highway, just around the corner from where the SPO/SNO Enforcement Team was clearing city-owned Sumner Street.
“In two months we’ve been swept five times,” Manuluata said. “I’m not used to this. It’s hard. We have nowhere to go.”
The SPO/SNO Enforcement Team represents what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls “compassionate enforcement” to encourage homeless people such as Manuluata to give up life on the street and instead move into a shelter or the city’s nascent Hale Mauliola community on Sand Island.
The team has been operating since January 2013 as part of Caldwell’s plan to deal with Oahu’s intractable homeless problem and respond to complaints from businesses and neighbors.
In communities such as Iwilei, where complaints connected to the homeless have increased in the last few months as more of them move in, the team’s Monday sweeps have become an unwelcome but expected part of life for the area’s homeless.
On monday about a dozen people who spent the night on the sidewalks of Kuwili Street were already packed and on the move to another neighborhood when the team rolled in with dump trucks and police escorts around 8 a.m. to find only two remaining encampments on either end of the street.
While others were still walking out of Kuwili Street, Bryanna Tunai, 21, sat in a beach chair outside her structure eating a cookie as the enforcement team’s dump truck noisily crushed pallets, plywood and the remains of someone else’s encampment.
“We have rights,” Tunai said.
Tunai is a veteran of the street who, like untold others, has grown both accustomed to — and weary of — the incessant sweeps that some say merely push homeless populations into neighboring communities.
“I’ve been out here since I was 16,” Tunai said. “The sweeps don’t faze me. We go back and forth between here and Aala Park.”
The work is not pleasant for the seven-person crew, which was joined by a separate, three-person “roving park patrol” in March 2015 to do the same work in city parks.
The crews sometimes work 17-hour shifts in order to clear city streets and enforce park bans that begin at 10 p.m., said Ross Sasamura, director and chief engineer of the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance.
In addition to harassment from the homeless people they remove, the crews are always on the lookout for hypodermic needles and “toilet buckets” filled with human urine and feces.
“When they leave, they leave their trash for us to pick up,” Sasamura said. “As a result of the sweeps, they’ve added mobility to their list of skills. Some of them scale down on the items they keep with them, and others find wheeled objects to help them transfer.”
Sasamura’s crew spent six months in the fall methodically breaking down the entrenched Kakaako homeless encampment. As it grew into a major safety and public health problem, the encampment crystallized Oahu’s need to deal with what has become the country’s highest per-capita rate of homelessness.
In the aftermath of the Kakaako sweeps, the city in January settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii that alleged it failed to provide notice of the sweeps and destroyed belongings rather than store them to be reclaimed.
Sasamura said he was barred from discussing the terms of the settlement.
But he said the enforcement team now gives homeless people a 30-minute heads-up before sweeps commence. Those whose possessions are taken get a claim ticket for their items, which must be stored for at least 30 days in an undisclosed location in Halawa.
The city also announces the next day’s sweeps on its website by 3 p.m. each day, Sasamura said.
In a statement, Vanessa Chong, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said, “City practices and policies during sweeps have been changed as a result of the lawsuit,” and the ACLU “continues to monitor city activities in the removal of private belongings on city property.”
Philip Richardson, president of Current Affairs, an event-planning business on Pine Street, said the ongoing sweeps are not a permanent solution, but they’re necessary to keep the neighborhood safe.
“They need to focus on picking up the carts, otherwise the homeless just rebuild again,” Richardson said. “But there is a marked difference between when they conduct the sweeps and when they do not in terms of violence, drugs and overall safety. If it were to discontinue, I would be extremely concerned.”