No quick solution to the cat-and-mouse game between the city and the homeless
Hawaii News

No quick solution to the cat-and-mouse game between the city and the homeless

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Suzanne LeMoine surveyed the area where a homeless man was living in the median at the corner of Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard on Aug. 11. LeMoine said the area is dangerous and unhealthy.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    Homeless people’s belongings were visible near Forrest Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard on Wednesday.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    Leilani Espiritu and Keoki Nakanelua occupied the median at Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard on Friday.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    Homeless moved their belongings Wednesday morning near Forrest Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard. At left, Suzanne LeMoine surveyed the area where a homeless man was living in the median at the corner of Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard on Aug. 11. LeMoine said the area is dangerous and unhealthy.

Once city and state officials signed a right-of-entry agreement early Friday, it wasn’t long before Honolulu police and state Department of Transportation workers descended on a busy traffic triangle on Atkinson Drive near Ala Moana Center to evict the homeless couple who had occupied the state-owned property for the better part of a year.

And it didn’t take long for Leilani Espiritu, 50, and Keoki Nakanelua, 53, to return. Later that night, the couple was camped out with their shopping carts, tarps and other belongings on the small concrete patch that city crews had cleared and cleaned earlier in the day.

The couple has been occupying the site, off and on, since then. For example, they left Tuesday afternoon, but were spotted hours later on a nearby sidewalk with their belongings, poised to return to their makeshift home.

This highly visible pingpong match between government officials and homeless campers is leaving frustrated residents and businesspeople scratching their heads as to why leaders cannot find a way to stop such abuse of public lands and facilities.

The Atkinson triangle is not the only spot where this scenario is playing out. Similar problems are festering in Honolulu’s downtown area. Homeless campers are occupying the area around the Ala Moana Wastewater Pump Station. Encampments are common where Piikoi Street passes under the H-1; at Kilauea and Waialae avenues near the Aloha Gas station; and the H-1 onramp near the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In Kakaako, homeless individuals are intermittently living in the traffic triangle at Forrest Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard.

Under the new city-state agreement, city crews are allowed to conduct homeless encampment sweeps on state-owned sidewalks and related areas on Ala Moana Boulevard, from Richards Street to Atkinson Drive; and Nimitz Highway, from the H-1 freeway’s westbound onramp in Kalihi to Richards Street.

Suzanne LeMoine, who lives near Atkinson Drive, said she has grown increasingly frustrated with government’s inability to keep the median clear for pedestrians — many of whom are tourists walking to and from Waikiki and Ala Moana Center.

“It’s not safe. It’s dirty. I’ve seen people peeing and pooping there,” LeMoine said. “Once, I even tripped over someone’s foot that was sticking out of the tent.

“I’ve complained to everyone that I can. This neighborhood has done everything that we can do within the bounds of civility to make these people move. We are frustrated. Someone needs to fix this,” she said.

George Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said while homelessness is not unique to Hawaii, traffic triangle campers create a “jarring visual contrast for visitors expecting to escape all of society’s ills when coming here.”

“There are regulations and laws that still need to be tightened up” to forbid homeless individuals from setting up encampments in public places, “especially near roadways that could endanger their lives and impede pedestrian traffic,” Szigeti said.

Jurisdictional challenges

City Councilman Trevor Ozawa introduced a resolution last week urging the city and state to find a solution for the site at Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard and surrounding sidewalks that includes consistent cleanup and enforcement. “We need swift action from the mayor and the governor,” Ozawa said.

City spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said the median is now among the locations that city crews routinely visit.

Ozawa also wants Mayor Kirk Caldwell to take the initiative to work with the state to address jurisdictional challenges throughout Oahu that are preventing quick resolution of problems stemming from homeless encampments.

“The city needs to make it as inconvenient as possible for homeless individuals to reside in dangerous encampments throughout our communities,” he said. In addition, the city must strive to “get them into shelters so these individuals get the health and medical services they need.”

Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in America. According to survey numbers released in June, the state’s homeless population tallied during a weeklong census in January was about 7,920.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, said the Atkinson-Ala Moana triangle is the only state traffic median getting regular complaints about homeless encampment.

When homeless people are living on state land, Morishige said, service providers and outreach workers are sent to offer shelter options and connect people with appropriate services. Outreach workers and state sheriffs have regularly visited the Atkinson-Ala Moana site to assess the needs of the people there, which have included significant health issues, he said.

“Recently, for example, one individual with health concerns successfully transitioned to a shelter and is on the path to permanent housing,” Morishige said.

But state Rep. Tom Brower said the traffic triangle problem persists because government is too soft on homeless individuals who ignore boundaries at the expense of residents and tourists.

“The policy is to invite campers to go into shelters, but if they decline they just let them stay there. They need to anticipate that some campers won’t ever leave without the threat of arrest,” Brower said. “Instead, they just shuffle around.”

Last summer, Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) was attacked and beaten at a Kakaako homeless encampment of nearly 300 people, an incident that helped attract intense political and media attention to the homeless issue. Residents of the camp claimed Brower was attacked after he refused their request to stop photographing them. Brower denies that, contending he had already put his camera away when he was assaulted.

Closing loopholes

Shuffling around has become a way of life for a 47-year-old homeless woman, who slept on a sidewalk on the makai side of Ala Moana Boulevard near a pier on Tuesday night. She keeps her belongings in carts and on pallets with wheels so she can make a quick exit when needed.

“We go through three or four sweeps a week,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Theresa. “I go back and forth from the parks to the sidewalks. We know how long we can stay and then we move. I want to keep camping.”

Justin Phillips, field manager for the Institute for Human Resources’ outreach, said the ongoing effort to step up outreach means that those who remain on the streets tend to be less inclined to accept assistance.

“It’s getting to the point that the people who are left are harder and more time-consuming and more resource-pulling clients,” Phillips said. “Many aren’t receptive to services. They are developing resources in the community that are allowing them to stay homeless. They also are looking for loopholes and finding them.”

To help close loopholes, Phillips said, government and outreach workers should look to the past year’s Kakaako area encampment sweeps.

“We had 400 campers there and it’s at 50,” he said. “There were jurisdictional issues and it took working together to solve them. We have to apply those techniques to all these smaller encampments.”

Phillips said the key to success is consistent and coordinated compassionate disruption with all landowners present, followed by outreach.

“Probably one-third of the people that engage me are looking to get away from sweeps,” he said. “We just have to keep going back until it works.”

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    • It takes a great deal of ingenuity and hard work to survive as a homeless person. Why not provide minimal housing and ask them to use all that hard and ingenuity in a job. The economy is boom city under Obama. Millions of jobs in America. Not happy with the cost of living? Move to where you can afford to live.

      • Allie – The economy is booming? Are you drinking the Kool-Aid? Why do you think there has been an increase in homelessness over the past 8 years? Certainly NOT because the economy is “booming”.
        The reality is that the economy is not booming, notwithstanding what the media is reporting. Answer one question: If Bush were in office the past 8 years, do you think the media would tie the increase in homelessness to the Presidency? Yet Obama gets a pass from uninformed opinions like yours.
        Good economic times does not result in an increase in homelessness.
        Wake up America.

        • The economy has boomed for the more fortunate. Unfortunately the wage gap has increased and those that are less fortunate cannot keep up with the inflation of home prices and rent especially in Hawaii where developers have bought our politicians and speculators drive real estate ever higher.

      • Really? I say it takes more ingenuity and hard work to survive as a working citizen in our state. I was homeless for a short time in college (slept in my car for four months). I had a full time job and was a full time UH student. No one knew about my living situation,. not even family. Cops never bothered me. Had a futon in my van. Showered at the beach park. Washed clothes at the laundromat. Parked at a walmart at night in case a bathroom break was necessary. Did homework and had internet at the public and Hamilton libraries. I can tell you first hand that it was the most stress-free existence I’ve had in my life. I was able to pay off all my debts and started “fresh” after saving a small reserve fund. I can imagine how easy it must be if I didn’t work and collected welfare and had free medicaid/dental benefits. I would also have access to free food and legal counseling. I made a lifestyle choice (like most homeless out there) to get my finances back in order but didn’t leach off taxpayers in order to do so. Thus, it is my opinion that the state should direct all “homeless” resources to the working poor instead of to those making a lifestyle choice to fund their drug habit.

        • I agree that we would like to see resources go where they are most needed. Unfortunately the greatest issue remains with those that wish to remain camping out on public spaces and refuse shelter because they have enough entitlements to survive on. These entitlements must be made relative to checking into and residing in a shelter. We must get them off the streets.

        • Mickels8, you remind me of my mom. Refused to go to welfare and had a lot of pride and moxie to raise a family by herself. You should be very proud of yourself. I understand there’s a bunch of homeless who are working to get out of their situation but I also see a lot of homeless who could care less about personal pride and working hard. They instead like to play their games knowing the ACLU is right around the corner ready to defend their rights. And our spineless elected officials don’t have the gonads to start getting tough. In any case, good luck to you and I’ll know you’ll be a success in your future endeavors.

  • Sweeping the homeless is like taking a shower, washing your car, and wiping your bum – you know it’s going to get dirty again, but you have to wash it every now and then to keep it from getting worse.

  • Here we go again. The hopeless city council passed the so called sit lie bill. What happens NOTHING!!. Why go through the motions, hold hearings, make this bill a law and so far NOTHING. If you want to solve the homeless problem show no mercy, arrest them for truancy, house them deep in Halawa Valley or else where. The losers here is the taxpayer who is pouring tons of monies to help them.

    • IRT dtpro1: “inability to enforce the laws”! on the button! it seems ACLU has better lawyers and I believe some homeless get their legal help from them via computer at our State run Library. Legislature not well educated in law to resolve issue.

  • Give them a choice… arrest or help. Arrest them and get them help … especially the mentally ill who can’t take care of themselves. If they are on probation and show up on the streets again… arrest is easy, probation violation. ACLU, start doing your part to HELP the people. leaving them on the streets is not helping anyone, especially the hard corp homeless.

  • They problem is, and has been, the fact that Hawaii won’t allow trailer parks to exist here. That is where low income people live and survive on the mainland. We know there are trailers on the island, we see them at movie shoots and construction sites, as well as other temporary business endeavors. Yes, the may not be as structurally secure as a home or apartment, but they are better than living on the street, in our parks, beaches, under bridges etc. You get what you can afford in this life, and this would be affordable housing.

  • There’s an OBVIOUS solution, one that Caldwell and Ige actually have in mind but are simply too shy to share publicly — raise taxes and build unlimited numbers of free housing for anyone who wants to move to Hawaii and live here for free. Oh, and also raise taxes to pay for their free medical, food, education, welfare, etc., as well. Problem solved!

    • “build unlimited numbers of free housing for anyone who wants to move to Hawaii and live here for free”

      Isn’t that why we’re building 21 rail stations?

  • I am sick ‘n tired of people like George Szigeti saying “homelessness is not unique to Hawaii” or people like Scott Morishige saying complains have been few concerning homeless on state property etc…..Typical political “nonsense” that people are getting tired of hearing about how other States have homelessness etc…so does that mean we have to accept what we have….NONSENSE…..act like a leader or have all these worthless politicians be it City or State getting off their HUMPS and actually get out there and move these ragged people off of the land they are inhabiting be it city or state and, geezus, people don’t care if its city or state land, just pass the damm laws about loitering or vagrancy or curfew after a certain hrs. if not they will be removed…..question is where do you put them…..how many times I have read about vacancies in shelters…well, if these people don’t want to enter a shelter then incarcerate them in a warehouse ……sick of these people and their rights and the lack of political fortitude among our politicians in acting right away….that’s what happens when you elect professional politicians or lawyers….just disgusting…..at least Rep. Brower tried to do something with the Kakaako problem and I CREDIT HIM FOR BRING PUBLICITY TO THAT HOMELESS ENCAMPMENT EVEN IF IT WAS A DANGER TO HIMSELF BUT HE ACTUALLY WAS OUT THERE TRYING TO DO SOMETHING INSTEAD OF THE OTHER LEGISLATORS OR COUNCILMEN IN THEIR AC OFFICES TALKING ABOUT IT OR DISCUSSING LEGAL ISSUES DEALING WITH THE HOMELESS…….WOULD FRANK FASI TOLERATE ALL OF THIS NONSENSE…..I DON’T THINK SO… EXCEPT FOR Rep. Brower..name me one politician that has a PROFILE IN COURAGE that’s willing to do something and not make feeble excuses like Szigeti or Morishige talking about…well, homeless exist in other states…I don’t care about other States……what about our State…..and this nonsense about jurisdictional issues only prolongs the problem and the city and state uses that as an excuse in not acting…GEEZUS, DO SOMETHING……YOU POLITICAL HACKS!!!

  • What if…….the City and State each had big water trucks that had a water cannon mounted so that they could go and “clean the sidewalks” at different times of the day/night?

    Could be a way to “clean up” this mess.

    • Now that’s a quick and easy solution….why can’t these ineptitude politicians come up with solutions like that…it sounds out of the ordinary but its a quick and easy solution that “kills 2 birds w/one stone.” First, you are cleaning the stench and smell off of these homeless vagrants and second you are getting rid of them from coming back….trust me, after a period of time, they will be so water-logged, they will move from that area……hey, and what’s his name can come with his sledge hammer and hammer those food carts, also……cheers!!

  • Doing the same thing over and over again is INSANE. Lock um up if they are BREAKING the LAW and SEND HOME the ones who are not from here and have no means to support themselves. Time for some TOUGH ACTION !!

  • Instead of just sweeping the homeless to the side momentarily, arrest them for vagrancy or trespassing, take them to an encampment far from tourists’ view. Hold them one or two nights while processing, no free food. Then let them go, no free ride back to Waikiki.

    Very little money spent, the tourists enjoy their visit to paradise, and it’ll be harder for the homeless to come back to their favorite comfy spot.

  • “We had 400 campers there and it’s at 50,” he said. My question is….why is there even 50? That’s not a win. The truth of the matter is the city and state are not interested in solving the homeless crisis.

    • Totally agree. Since when is only a 1% increase in homelessness something for Caldwell to be proud of. Shouldn’t the numbers decline instead of increasing?

  • Are there REALLY any city sidewalks or city parks where it is actually legal to camp? If there are, then the laws need fixing. Fix them, and then give the people encamped there a choice, and see that they make it: move to a shelter, or move to a place where camping is allowed. OK, this posits that we have designated places where people can legally live in a tent. Again, get busy and designate these if there aren’t enough now. Then provide transportation to one or the other place. Also, all the shopping carts are stolen, so those could be confiscated and returned to the stores. I live across from Aala Park, and I’m sympathetic to the difficulty of finding affordable housing, but the people camping in and around the park are creating a public health hazard. P.S. Star-Ad, why no mention of Aala Park in your story?

  • let stop drug house & gambling house they are some of the cause of Homeless how many drug user lost their house to pusher more than people think.also did they have a probleb in Mauai about people killed to many gambling debth not good only was to stop have Guts ask them not to collect from gamblers % drug users is a sickness wher the local mafia &houser make lot of profit think for me who encourage the houses to stay in business lot of profit every where but the victim

  • The real problem is that the homeless people are SMARTER than our government employees and officials.

    Get rid of Morishige. Have HPD issue a citation to homeless squatting on sidewalks, parks, medians, etc. Then, if they don’t pay the fine or they are back squatting, arrest them and put them in jail. We have ordinances so ENFORCE THEM!

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