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.
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.
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.”