At 6:30 a.m. Friday, Leilani Espiritu and Keoki Nakanelua were sleeping soundly under a plastic tarp at the edge of a traffic median at Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard.
The pair were oblivious to the sounds from passing cars and the prying eyes of pedestrians. They’ve spent months ignoring the complaints about their presence at the location and the size of their encampment, which included two Sam’s Club shopping carts filled with bags of recycling, cardboard liners, kitchen items, a propane tank, a grill, food, clothing and assorted mementos.
Espiritu and Nakanelua said they were drawn to the traffic triangle, which sits on state land, because it was free from the city’s park closure laws, which often result in citations and arrests for overnight campers. It also wasn’t subject to the city’s sit-lie law, which bans sitting and lying on public sidewalks.
The pair’s long stay frustrated nearby residents and Waikiki advocates, including state Rep. Tom Brower and City Councilman Trevor Ozawa. The legal loopholes that allowed the pair to remain at the median came to symbolize government’s inability to break down the silos that have contributed to the spread of homelessness on the island.
“When government doesn’t want to clear things up, they throw up roadblocks. This isn’t a jurisdictional issue, it’s a leadership issue,” said Brower, who first complained to Gov. David Ige’s homeless team about the encampment on the traffic median in November. “Sadly, sometimes you have to shame the government into doing its job. Unless it’s a big high-profile event like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a conservation congress or they are filming ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ we don’t clear things up. Yet, when we want to do something and put our mind to it we can solve the issue of cleanliness.”
To Brower’s point, after months of inactivity at the median, Honolulu police and state Department of Transportation workers arrived at about 9 a.m. Friday and told the pair they had to vacate their encampment.
Lives in limbo
A right of entry agreement signed that day between the city and state cleared the way for the eviction. The city Department of Facility Maintenance crews now can enforce applicable stored property and sidewalk nuisance laws on state lands on Nimitz Highway from the H-1 West onramp in Kalihi- Palama to Richards Street and then on Ala Moana Boulevard from Richards Street to Atkinson Drive, including the Atkinson/Ala Moana traffic island.
“As you know, this traffic island issue has persisted because it is on state property,” said city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. “DFM intends to conduct enforcement there in the coming weeks following additional service worker outreach efforts.”
Rayna Brown, a Waikiki outreach specialist for the Institute for Human Services, said the district’s unsheltered homeless clients also are bracing for added security related to the World Conservation Congress, a major international event taking place next month in Waikiki that may attract President Barack Obama as the opening-day speaker.
“We’re working to keep them informed and offer alternatives,” Brown said.
Honolulu police and park workers are also warning homeless campers at Ala Moana Beach Park that event security will require some of them to move. On Thursday, city workers posted a sign above Espiritu and Nakanelua’s encampment advising passers-by that live video would be collected from Aug. 30 to Sept. 10 as part of security efforts for the conference.
HPD Maj. Ryan Borges said police will be using traffic cameras to capture video at sites near the Hawai‘i Convention Center and Neal Blaisdell Center, which are the primary event venues.
“I know about the sign,” said Espiritu, 50, who has been homeless for 15 years. “I just don’t know where I’m going to go. I feel tired and insecure. It’s hard to move. I felt safe at the median because it was lit. If I can, I’ll try to come back.”
Nakanelua suggested the couple head to Ala Moana Beach Park or the Ala Wai Promenade. However, conference security extends to portions of those areas so they will likely have to continue shuffling between locations. On Aug. 5, the state reported the traffic median had been cleared, but it was reoccupied by Monday.
“Homeless outreach workers accompanied by state sheriffs have regularly visited the site to assess the unique needs of the people there, which includes significant health issues,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness. “Recently, for example, one individual with health concerns successfully transitioned to a shelter and is on the path to permanent housing.”
Morishige said the state and city’s coordinated response to homelessness is ongoing and not limited to the upcoming conservation congress. “It includes a focus on connecting people experiencing homelessness with health and human services and permanent housing,” he said.
But Dwayne Lacaran, who lives under a tarp at Ala Moana Beach Park, said the police presence is building. Lacaran has been packing in anticipation of a sweep, but hopes he will only get pushed to another park location.
“I’m not moving unless they force me. And, hell no, I’m not going to no shelter,” said Lacaran. “They’ve got rules and regulations and bedbugs and all that good stuff.”
He recalled when similar security measures were instituted for APEC in 2011. Outreach workers said those measures coincided with then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 90-day plan to improve homelessness by coordinating government, nonprofits and community efforts to increase opportunities for homeless people to receive services.
Kimo Carvalho, community relations director for the IHS, which runs the state’s largest shelter, said the same parties will make cooperative strides for the upcoming conference, but they’ll evaporate without concerted effort. “We hope to use this event as a launching point for more communication and cooperation between entities,” he said.