The state Department of Transportation will use $4 million in funding to bolster homeless sweeps — using sheriff’s deputies as early as Monday in a new approach to keeping encampments dismantled as it begins clearing parts of Nimitz Highway and the H-1 freeway.
If successful, the effort will continue with sweeps of the homeless from DOT bridges and other encampments on DOT land across Oahu, before moving to the neighbor islands.
Previous DOT sweeps have not permanently cleared homeless encampments from DOT property, and Ed Sniffen, the DOT’s deputy director, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Thursday that he understands the public’s frustration with the ongoing problem.
The DOT has spent $250,000 to $300,000 annually to sweep encampments on DOT land twice a year — only to see homeless people return, often within hours.
Unlike previous efforts, the department now plans to conduct regular cleanups backed by sheriff’s deputies, along with a coordinated social service outreach. The department plans to use $2 million of $12 million that legislators approved for homeless efforts, and another $2 million from existing DOT maintenance funds to pay for cleanup crews and sheriff’s deputies, Sniffen said.
“I wanted to apologize that they didn’t see action,” Sniffen said. “But action was being taken. The action was moving toward getting this plan together.”
The DOT’s new strategy will begin with Nimitz Highway from River Street to the Pearl Harbor interchange; and the H-1 freeway from Middle Street to Kahala.
Private company HTM Contractors Inc. was hired to clear out encampments, and state sheriff’s deputies are tasked with preventing homeless people from returning, Sniffen said. The new approach means no longer diverting DOT crews to do homeless cleanups instead of their normal duties maintaining and repairing DOT roads.
“When we pulled off to do enforcement actions, we lost $250,000 to $300,000 of maintenance,” Sniffen said. “We don’t want to just show action; we want to show progress.”
Asked whether deputies will come back to newly cleared areas every day to prevent tents and tarps from popping back up, Sniffen said, “If it takes it.”
“These are not safe areas to be in,” Sniffen said. “Our intent is not to push these people around, but these corridors have to be safe.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, estimated that 80 homeless people live along Nimitz Highway and H-1 in areas that will be swept next week.
“You cannot do it just one time,” Morishige said. “People are just going to return, sometimes the same day.”
On Thursday, Morishige and two of his staff handed out notices to people in eight encampments atop a grass-and-dirt berm that overlooks the Punchbowl Street offramp to the H-1 freeway.
The notices warn the occupants that they are not authorized to be in a restricted area, and offered contact information for shelters and other homeless-related services.
Outreach workers from three social service agencies — the Institute for Human Services, Kalihi-Palama Health Center and the CHOW Project, which stands for Community Health Outreach Work — already have been offering homeless-related services, including bed space in homeless shelters. They will return to the area and spend most of Monday notifying homeless people along Nimitz Highway and the H-1 freeway.
Sweeps could begin Monday afternoon, Morishige said, but the real push likely will start at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, he said.
Along with notices offering help, signs have gone up informing people they’re on government property.
Fences also will be erected to block access to the “Magellan overlook areas” — as DOT calls them — to block access, Sniffen said. The signs and fences are designed to make sure “there’s no confusion whether you can be up in the area,” Sniffen said.
Ryan Hardesty, 31, said he might be willing for the first time to enter a homeless shelter after being homeless on Oahu for a year. During that time, Hardesty said, he’s been swept seven or eight times.
“I might be willing” to enter a shelter, he said.
Hardesty’s neighbor Larry Guthrie, 67, remained defiant and did not plan to be around when the dump trucks and deputies move in next week.
“I’ll be gone,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll find another place real soon.”
The DOT’s sweeps will include three overlook areas along Magellan Avenue, which runs parallel to the H-1 freeway, and with encampments along Nimitz Highway in Kalihi and Iwilei that continue to represent a negative first impression for tourists heading into Waikiki from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
The city’s latest sit-lie ban, which went into effect in May — for certain commercial and industrial areas of Kalihi and Iwilei — has helped scatter the homeless into other neighborhoods and has sometimes resulted in wooden pallets and other materials being discarded onto busy Nimitz Highway.
“Definitely, you’ve seen folks moved out of certain areas into other areas,” Morishige said. “The goal at the end of the day is not to move people from here to there, but to connect them with housing. Slowly but surely we are moving people out of homelessness.”
In June the city agreed to clear tents and tarps from DOT-owned grassy medians that line Nimitz Highway, only to see homeless people return within hours.
Following the first sweeps, Sniffen said DOT staff will review how well they went before deciding what areas to tackle next.
People who want to report homeless activity on DOT land — or anywhere else in the state — can contact Morishige’s office by calling 586-0193 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, he said.