Within a few hours of the city sweeping a grassy median along busy Nimitz Highway on Monday morning, at least one homeless person returned as city officials vowed to continue clearing the state-owned land.
“The message really is that we’ll continue to come back to revisit those areas,” said Ross Sasamura, director and chief engineer for the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance.
Monday marked a further expansion of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” approach toward the homeless when a special city cleanup crew that normally clears homeless encampments from city sidewalks expanded its duties to the grassy medians along state-owned Nimitz Highway.
A convoy of nine city trucks and police vehicles moved into Awa Street at 8:30 a.m. without notice but gave several homeless occupants 30 minutes to remove personal items before crews began hauling out what remained, including a bucket full of human waste.
The medians belong to the state Department of Transportation and represent one of the first impressions for tourists heading into Waikiki from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
“We thank the city for its efforts to help address the health and safety concerns in the Iwilei area,” DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara wrote in a statement. “The city is ahead of us on the process and procedures regarding legal challenges when addressing the homeless who are staying on unpermitted areas. We will continue coordination with the city regarding the illegal campers.”
While at least one homeless person returned, others said they’ll just set up shop in someone else’s neighborhood.
Thinh Nguyen, 51, has been living in a tent on the Nimitz Highway median at Awa Street “for a couple of months” and had no idea where he would go next.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Ala Moana (Beach Park), I guess.”
The city cleanup crew had just finished its usual route enforcing the city’s stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances in nearby Iwilei when it moved into Awa Street.
Honolulu police Cpl. Leland Cadoy, who escorts the cleanup crew, said he was greeted with the same question he’d received before from homeless occupants.
“When can we come back?” Cadoy quoted them as saying.
Cadoy gave his stock reply: “That’s up to you,” he said. “It’s not up to us to say yes or no.”
Caldwell previously told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the new approach, without the usual 24-hour notice, was in response to an imminent “health and safety issue” because the homeless were living in the middle of one of Honolulu’s busiest traffic corridors.
The cleanup crew also discovered people living in two makeshift structures hanging from chains and ropes beneath a bridge off Awa Street, just a few feet above the water that leads to Honolulu Harbor.
Sasamura said they’ll have to figure out whether — and how — to clean out those structures.
Efforts to remove them will depend on “situational awareness concerns,” Sasamura said.
“Usually it’s plywood and other wood they use to span the trusses to create living spaces above the water,” he said.
For Monday morning’s initial sweep of the DOT lands, “our primary focus was the median area,” Sasamura said.
It represented the city’s continuing efforts to clear out homeless encampments on state lands going back to 2015, when the state granted the city a right-of-way to clear sidewalks along Ala Moana Boulevard to Richards Street, where Ala Moana Boulevard ends.
The move was an effort to prevent homeless people in Kakaako Waterfront Park from walking across Ala Moana Boulevard to sit out sweeps while crews cleaned out the park.
Last year the right-of-way was extended from Richards Street — where Nimitz Highway begins — to the H-1 viaduct onramp, Sasamura said.
“A lot of it had to do with our effectiveness in Kakaako,” Sasamura said. “We realized that the issue … is not limited to jurisdictional limits.”
The state has tried to develop its own cleanup crews, but “there were issues with legislative support and budget requests that were denied,” Sasamura said.
So the city will continue to remove homeless encampments on state land “if resources allow,” he said.
The city has two crews that sweep homeless encampments day and night to enforce park closure hours and the city’s separate stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.
Each crew costs $780,000 annually.
A third crew is being organized and is planned to add weekend shifts. Sasamura hopes to get employees hired and on the road by the end of the year.
Since 2013 the city has collected more than 7,000 shopping carts from homeless encampments, which have been returned to their owners, Sasamura said.
At the same time, Sasamura said, the crews have picked up more than 2.3 million pounds of debris from homeless encampments “that would otherwise be littering sidewalks, streets and other city traffic.”