Homeless encampments in the middle of Nimitz Highway in Iwilei continue to grow despite repeated sweeps — including one in August — and will represent one of the first images to greet tourists Thursday when Hawaii’s visitor industry tries to regain its footing in the era of COVID-19.
Another sweep of homeless people on the state-owned Nimitz Highway medians — especially a notorious one on private land — is planned for Thursday by a private contractor hired by the state.
Medians in the middle of one of Hawaii’s busiest corridors have been occupied by homeless encampments for years. And some area business owners are resigned in frustration that the area will never be free of Oahu’s homeless.
City officials say they haven’t observed a recent increase in the city’s homeless population, although camps such at the one on Nimitz Highway may have grown as the city this year shut down parks as part of COVID-19 restrictions — and as inmates have been released from Oahu Community Correctional Center on court- ordered early release because of jail-related COVID-19 cases.
“We’re seeing more folks out on the streets visibly, and that’s partly due to the simple fact that that we’ve been on lockdown, people are working from home, there’s not as much traffic around, the park rules have changed quite a bit,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, a coalition of organizations and government agencies that address homelessness in Hawaii. “So we’re seeing a lot more people in visible areas where we might not have seen them before.”
The base of the encampment on Nimitz Highway is on private property between opposing lanes of the highway. Tim Sakahara, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the property manager has scheduled a “cleanup” in coordination with the DOT, the City and County of Honolulu and the Honolulu Police Department.
“Social service providers have been informing the people in the encampments of the action over the last two weeks,” he said in an email. “The outreach efforts include both outreach providers and police speaking with the homeless individuals and encouraging them to seek other housing or shelter options.”
Hale Toa Mui Contractors, which is already working with the DOT, will break down the encampment.
Homeless individuals have occupied the Iwilei area and Nimitz Highway as nearby facilities like the Institute for Human Services and the Punawai Rest Stop provide food, showers and other goods and services for those who need them.
Those along the busy highway are considered to be in particularly dangerous, unsafe conditions due to traffic.
The camps and homeless population have also affected area businesses.
Philip Richardson, CEO and founder of Current Affairs, an event planning company, said he’s addressed homeless camps in the Iwilei area, where his warehouse is located, for several years. He said more homeless camps have recently been set up in the area, mostly on the highway, but he said it was a problem for his business on Pine Street.
“Some of the encampments take over the complete sidewalk, so we are walking in the middle of the street to get to our destination. That was pre-COVID,” Richardson said. “When we first had to stop work, there were encampments literally outside our front door, on our private property, and along the side of our warehouse, on our private property.”
The last sweep of the Nimitz Highway encampment — back then equipped with several refrigerators and a washing machine — was in August, but the encampment has since been reestablished.
On Monday a refrigerator on the sidewalk along the highway’s westbound lanes was hooked up to a battery, which was connected to a solar panel … although the refrigerator wasn’t on.
A representative from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the property owner, said those camping there have been given notice and that fencing will be installed after the sweep to keep another encampment from forming.
“Our security company, Star Protection, has been actively notifying the residents in advance of the move, offering whatever assistance they might need to voluntarily vacate the area. Temporary fencing will be installed once the area is cleared to further ensure a safe environment for all,” Giorgio Caldarone, managing director of Hawaii real estate for the foundation, said in a statement.
Francis Ladia lives in one of the larger camps with three other people. Made up of several large canopies, the camp has several bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen area with a grill.
It also has a door made of a wooden board and walls made out of wooden pallets.
Ladia and others have tried to maintain the cleanliness of the property and keep the peace in the area to make up for setting up camp on privately owned land.
“We don’t make trouble here,” Ladia said, adding that they “keep the trouble out.”
Although shelters and temporary living facilities are available, the Nimitz Highway encampment is known as being service-resistant.
HPD acting Lt. Dan O’Neill, who is coordinating the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage program at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park, said officers have done outreach at the encampment, although with limited success.
“The officers that I’ve sent out have not had much success,” he said. “The people in that encampment, from what I’ve heard, built a kind of large structure over there and have kind of settled in.”
The POST facility, which became operational in April, is an outdoor and pet-friendly facility that provides a tent, food and transportation for homeless individuals who need somewhere to stay during the state’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite the impending Thursday sweep, city Councilman Joey Manahan expects people to return to the Nimitz Highway area, which is managed by the state and has no sit-lie ban to enforce.
“Once the area is cleared, people are trespassing, and they can’t go back when there’s a sit-lie ordinance in place,” he said. “In the places where we don’t have a sit-lie ordinance, they usually return.”
Ladia is prepared to leave the camp by Thursday with just personal belongings, although the camp they made, which was hosting visitors Monday afternoon, acts as a refuge for those who need it.
“If someone needs a place to stay for the night … then yeah, come in,” Ladia said, adding that there’s food and clothes for people who need them.
“HPD doesn’t see that. … That’s pretty much why I made my place big,” Ladia said.