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Addressing homelessness on public lands

SAND ISLAND, O‘ahu — The shoreline on the western side of O‘ahu’s only urban state park is intended to be a place for residents and visitors to fish and swim and participate in recreational pursuits.

The park is made up of two areas. One is a fairly groomed park with permitted camping sites, day-use sites, softball fields and comfort stations. The other section of the park is an undeveloped and heavily marginalized urban wilderness, where fishermen used to go to fish peacefully and several canoe clubs practice the state sport with keiki and adult paddlers.

Unfortunately, the growing population of homeless people have reduced the desire for access and have made the area unsavory for paddlers, because of loose dogs, frequent fights and other misconduct associated with the squatters.

“My heart goes out to these people in terms of the social impacts, the issue’s they’ve had in their lives. We’ve created an entitled population who prefer to be camping along the shoreline or in the bushes rather than getting offered services and housing. It’s become a lifestyle,” said Curt Cottrell, administrator of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks.

DLNR manages lands for the use of the public, not for the use of homeless, but the department can only do so much, he said.

Squatters could be cited for trespass, and despite periodic cleanups there is no effective way to move homeless people off public lands permanently when they consistently refuse housing. In fact, many of the people who were inhabiting 30 different campsites at Sand Island came from Kaka‘ako, after parks there were transferred to the City and County of Honolulu.

The houseless population, at places like Sand Island State Recreation Area and Diamond Head State Monument, consumes a lot of Cottrell’s and his staff’s time, not to mention the high cost of continued clean-ups of illegal camps, he continued.

“State Parks budgeted $200,000 this year to support the Department of Transportation contracted cleanup efforts. It’s nowhere enough. It’s a shame this is happening to some of our most beautiful locations.”

Responding to complaints and explaining what DLNR can and can’t do about homeless folks on state lands also takes up a lot of time and patience, he said.

The process

Several times each year, DLNR and its partners schedule homeless camp cleanups. Prior to any cleanup, DLNR representatives are joined by service providers, such as the Institute for Human Services, Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center, and the City and County of Honolulu’s TEAM Work Hawai‘i program.

They walk through each camp and contact each person they see to let them know cleanup crews will be on the way. Notice and outreach is provided typically one to two weeks in advance of any cleanup operation.

Scott Morishige, the Governor’s Office Homelessness Coordinator, explained, “Even if an individual does not choose to accept shelter, involvement with service providers enables them to connect with case management and medical services. They also receive assistance in getting identification cards and other vital documents, as well as connections to benefits like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps).”

The cleanup

Following the notice to gather up their belongings and move, a contractor moves in with trucks and workers to collect everything people have left behind. They’re responsible for loading up and moving into storage everything individuals don’t take with them. If items are stored, the owners then have 30 days in which to claim any personal belongings.

“The thing we find the most challenging and egregious is the amount of rubbish that’s generated that we have to keep cleaning up,” Cottrell said.

”The money we’re spending on these cleanups could be used for park improvements and other needed projects. It’s a shame this is happening in some of our most beautiful locations. Granted, Sand Island is an urban area, but with enough elbow grease and funding it could be a jewel of a park.”

The future

While squatters are camping without authorization, being homeless in and of itself is not illegal. Pua Aiu, DLNR’s homelessness coordinator, said, “Periodic but regular operations at Sand Island and Diamond Head are not intended to be a solution to homelessness or a social service response, but are consistent with our overall mission of protecting and managing state lands and resources.”

At Sand Island, DSP is exploring “activating” the shoreline for the enjoyment of everyone, which hopefully will prevent camps from reappearing almost immediately after a cleanup.

State Rep. Daniel Holt toured the area with Cottrell earlier this month, and says it’s a bigger issue than he imagined.

“To see this beautiful area trashed and disrespected is very tough. I feel for the people who are struggling and have to live out here in these tents, but we need both short-term and longer-term solutions to activating the space,” Holt said.

Ideas include getting a nearby BMX track up and running, doing a mass cleanup of the nearshore waters, partnering with canoe clubs and conducting daily sweeps.

The challenges

“Daily sweeps would be challenging,” Cottrell says, as it would require daily staff, law enforcement and social worker commitment. “Here’s the thing. We are just cleaning up their mess as a land-management strategy. Real solutions are so hard to find, especially if people refuse housing or find campsites as safe places to do drugs.

“The adjacent BMX site, a great community asset, gets vandalize regularly. They just had a locker broken into and 20 bikes were stolen. Canoe clubs are expanding their activity at Sand Island, but are also finding it difficult to deal with the 24/7 homeless population.

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to homelessness,” Morishige said. “However, it is important to balance enforcement efforts with connections to services and a continued focus on navigation to housing.”

He credits DLNR for engaging with the larger strategy of addressing homelessness statewide, though the department’s mission is to “enhance, protect, conserve and manage … Hawai‘i’s public trust natural and cultural resources.”

In addition to having a homeless coordinator on staff, DLNR has provided land for emergency shelters and housing, including two projects at Sand Island. The Hale Mauli Ola emergency shelter is on DLNR land leased to the City and County of Honolulu, and the Kauhauiki Village housing land was transferred to the city and county, which in turn leased it to a private foundation.

“First we need to keep the area clean, and then we need the community to help us envision what is the highest and best use for the park,” Cottrell said.

”What can the community do? They can file police reports when they see crime, or are affected by criminal acts, or are bitten by loose dogs. We encourage people to continue using the groomed parts of the park, as we slowly expand use to the whole park.”

He likens the homeless situation to dealing with a Rubik’s cube. “To get all one color lined up is a monumental effort, and then to have it stay put before you start turning the cube, it turns into chaos again,” Cottrell said.
Source: The Garden Island

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