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Influx of new people has brought more crime, shelter residents say

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Video by Sarah Domai
Residents of an American Red Cross shelter in Pahoa, Hawaii, talk about the increase in crime as more people flood into the facility.
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Video by Sarah Domai
Volcanologist Rick Hazlett stops for an interview in front of a fountaining fissure 8 from Kilauea volcano is Hawaii.
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Red Cross facilities at Pahoa HIgh School. Dora Kamekona Wheatley, and Clyde Wheatley in shelter.

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Dora Kamekona Wheatley, and Clyde Wheatley in shelter.

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Harlen Kuamoo, with husband, Larry Kuamoo, and daughter, Roseline Kuamoo.

PAHOA, Hawaii >> Dora Kamekona Wheatley’s left knee bounced nervously as she described abandoning her family home of 16 years in Leilani Estates with 15 minutes’ notice as lava from Kilauea Volcano threatened the rural subdivision.

Wheatley, 55, who suffers from depression and anxiety, hadn’t left her home in three years and was facing relocation to the American Red Cross emergency shelter at the Pahoa Community Center and District Park, along with scores of other residents displaced by the eruption that started May 3.

To avoid living in close quarters under stressful circumstances, Wheatley got permission to set up a tent near the baseball field above the main shelter at the Pahoa gym, where she has been living in a tent under a series of tarps with husband Clyde and their two dogs. The couple’s daughter, son-in-law and young grandson have their own living space in the adjacent dugout at the baseball field.

The Wheatleys were among the first to set up camp outdoors, but in the last six weeks they have been joined by 240 other people who are living outside the shelter in their cars, in tents and under tarps in parking lots and playing fields.

The couple and several other shelter residents living outside the gym told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that a growing number of people who were homeless or living in unstable situations before the volcano disaster have joined the makeshift community and are responsible for an increase in thefts, domestic disturbances and other trouble that has required police intervention.

“It was real peaceful here but it’s gotten worse,” said Clyde Wheatley, 55, a disabled veteran. “In the past two weeks there’s been an influx of new people.”

The couple said they have not had anything stolen, but know others who have. To prevent being victimized, the Wheatleys never leave their belongings unattended and rely on their dogs to provide extra security.

Wheatley said he thinks the Red Cross should be screening shelter seekers and asking to see identification, mail or other proof of residency in areas affected by lava or volcanic fumes. He gets angry when talking about anyone who may be taking advantage of the situation to get free food, supplies and shelter.

“It ain’t my problem that you’re homeless. It wasn’t a choice for us,” he said.

A fellow camper, April Buxton, 44, bought a home in Leilani Estates last year after her husband died in 2016. Her house is still standing, but she evacuated because of lingering volcanic gases.

Soon after setting up a temporary shelter in the parking lot above the gym, Buxton started a community kitchen and pantry.

She too has seen a change in her new neighbors and is worried about crime.

“We’re up all night long protecting our stuff,” Buxton said. “Thefts, drugs and all the other problems have been getting worse over the last few weeks.”

The “outside” shelter where Buxton and the Wheatleys are living comprises a loose patchwork of encampments set up across a series of broad playing fields, with the greatest concentration in the parking lot above the gym.

“It’s good that they can pick their own spots so they won’t grumble as much,” said Glenn Kokubun, Puna/Kau District supervisor for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Kokubun said he has noticed that some homeless people and others “who don’t belong there” have taken up residence around the Red Cross shelter.

“There are some that are in the bushes — you know how they come, the hippies and whatnot who are not displaced, but are now getting free food,” he said.

Parks staff and county-contracted security services have been providing around-the-clock security for the Pahoa park, Kokubun said, and two to three parks workers are cleaning the area “all the time.” In addition, he said, eight to nine recreation staff are “maintaining the peace and order” and assisting wherever needed.

He said there haven’t been any instances of vandalism or damage to county park facilities, although officials have had to kick out some campers due to fighting, domestic conflicts and drinking.

The situation isn’t different from any other large campground in the parks system, according to Kokubun. “There are people who get out of hand. It’s just the common stuff that happens in any park that’s been going on for a long time,” he said.

American Red Cross officials said that in addition to the population at Pahoa, which includes 80 people housed inside the gym shelter, the agency is assisting 16 people living inside the adjacent senior center and 13 outside, and 32 people inside the Keaau shelter, which is at full capacity, and 35 outside.

Krislyn Yano, communications manager for the American Red Cross of Hawaii, said the Pahoa shelter is not at capacity, so anyone camping outdoors there is doing so by choice. She also said the agency has been accepting anyone seeking help, regardless of their circumstances.

“We haven’t heard anything yet (about the complaints). All the shelters tend to get a small population of homeless people, even when we opened the shelters on Oahu for flooding,” Yano said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that.”

Virginia Hart, American Red Cross public affairs spokeswoman on the Big Island, said the agency is able to address problem behavior by occupants of the gym shelter, but the county Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for managing those who have decided to live on park grounds.

The Kuamoo family set up their tents and tarps on the Pahoa park’s far playing field, close to the public restrooms and electrical outlets, where they have plugged in a generator to provide electricity for their medical needs.

Harlen Kuamoo, 70, suffers from sleep apnea, and her husband, Larry, 69, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Poor air quality and other public safety issues forced them to evacuate their home on Kamaili Road in Pahoa along with their daughter Roseline, 46, and her 16-year-old son.

Sitting under a tent enjoying an afternoon snack of hard-boiled eggs, the Kuamoos have been living outside the Pahoa shelter for about three weeks. Although not crime victims themselves, they did witness a fight and have heard from other campers about car break-ins.

They remarked that since the Red Cross shelter opened, the homeless people who normally sleep on the sidewalks in Pahoa town seemed to have disappeared.

“To me it don’t matter,” Larry Kuamoo shrugged. “They need help, too. It’s all good.”

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