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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 22, 2002

Homeless population has moved, not left

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

He lives in Ala Moana Beach Park and goes by the street name "Kickstand."

Dawn finds people sleeping at Ala Moana Park. A city campaign to rid downtown of homeless people has fed the population at the popular beach park, where police have stepped up round-the-clock patrols.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

For seven years he lived in 'A'ala Park on the outskirts of downtown Honolulu, before the city fenced it off for renovation last year and forced people living there to leave.

Kickstand liked living at the park because it was close to health care and free meals. But he has come to prefer being near the ocean, where he is now. "Tourists pay thousands of dollars for this perfect weather," he said. "I'm on vacation."

The city hopes renovation will change 'A'ala Park, long abandoned by tourists and residents.

But Kickstand, 39, and others who migrated from the park have joined a large homeless population in Ala Moana Beach Park. Kickstand did not want to be identified because he is worried about his safety in the park.

A survey of the homeless in Ala Moana conducted in September estimated their number at between 80 and 100. Since the city expanded its program in February to keep the homeless out of downtown parks and streets, that estimate has reached 150.

Ala Moana Beach Park is one of the most popular, high-profile parks on O'ahu. It is at the gateway to tourist-mecca Waikiki and is next to the state's largest retail area, Ala Moana Center.

Over the years, the homeless have co-existed with thousands of tourists and residents who use the beach park, but the increasing homeless population is beginning to cause concern and has led to an increase in around-the-clock police patrols.

"I've had many complaints about homeless issues at the park," said John Breinich, chairman of the Ala Moana/Kaka'ako Neighborhood Board, which holds discussions on the issue every month and gets updates from police on the subject.

The beach park is not closed at night, as are many other city parks. Safety concerns increased April 9 when a man was found dead at the 'ewa end of the park.

Employees discovered the man on the ground near the bathrooms early in the morning. Police think he might have been beaten to death and are investigating the case as a homicide.

"(Homeless people in the park) is an issue we keep on the front burner because it is so important to residents," Breinich said. "The murder heightens the issue for everybody."

Police have seen the increase in homeless in the park, and officers patrol the area day and night in all-terrain vehicles, said Honolulu Police Department Maj. Michael Tucker, District 1 commander.

"Our main concern is that everybody has access to the park," Tucker said. "We don't want to advocate closing of the park, but we want people to feel comfortable going to the park."

Tucker said a common complaint is that the homeless monopolize park bathrooms.

"We address violations of criminal law. Camping, disorderly conduct, drinking," Tucker said. "It is not against the law to be homeless or live a lifestyle people may disagree with."

Since reopening 'A'ala Park in January, the city has stepped up police patrols to keep homeless people and drug dealers out. In February, city crews removed all public benches from Fort Street Mall between Hotel and Beretania streets, an area often used by the homeless.

The city has begun enforcing closure of the mall from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to prevent the homeless from sleeping there.

The Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless last month ranked Honolulu among the dozen "meanest" cities in the nation for its treatment of the poor and homeless.

City Managing Director Ben Lee did not return telephone calls about the city's handling of the homeless, but city spokeswoman Carol Costa last month called the report unfair and said it inaccurately depicted the situation in Honolulu.

Costa said the city helps the homeless by providing money to caregivers. The city has given more than $11 million to care providers for the homeless in the last two years, she said.

But Dyane Sih, who regularly takes morning walks at Ala Moana for exercise and has become friendly with several of the people living there, said forcing the homeless from downtown does not help them.

"You can't solve the problem by moving these people somewhere else," Sih said. "The problem will still exist. If we push them out of Ala Moana, they will just go to Kapi'olani Park and we will still have the problem. It is people's right to complain, but pushing them around the island is not a solution."

Once homeless himself, Ben Paglia of Hawai'i Homeless Inc. has been doing outreach work at Ala Moana park.

"They may not be there during the day, and you would not see many of them at night," Paglia said. "That's because there are lots of cubby holes to stay in and they figure out the routines in the park."

Several agencies work directly with the homeless in Ala Moana, said Laura Theilen of Health Care for the Homeless.

Outreach workers meet with individuals, trying to determine the reasons they are homeless and possible ways to get them into affordable housing. Many suffer from mental illness or have lost their housing because of addictions or financial problems.

"The shelters are full, but beyond that, many people don't want to stay in shelters," Theilen said. "They are not a fun place to be. Those that have mental illnesses find it is very difficult to stay in shelters."

Theilen would like Honolulu to create "drop-in centers," open to all individuals to bathe, rest and get off of the streets for a while. The idea has been successful in helping the homeless population in New York, she said.

"It would be beneficial to the parks, to the tourists and to the clients themselves," she said.

The number of homeless in Hawai'i has fluctuated, growing marginally from 12,346 in 1994 to 12,923 in fiscal year 2000-2001, according to state figures. On O'ahu, 6,369 were counted in 1994, compared with 7,135 in fiscal 2000-2001. Of those, 3,279 did not seek help from shelters.

Wearing a bright blue T-shirt and sweat pants, "Kickstand" watched last week as early morning joggers, bicyclists and walkers passed by his perch on a concrete wall at Magic Island. He walks with a cane and uses a small shopping cart to carry his meager belongings.

He hasn't worked since 1995, when he was partially paralyzed in an auto accident. The monthly disability income he receives is not enough to cover renting a home.

"Kickstand" said it is not easy living in the park, which he called a "dog-eat-dog world" filled with drugs and thieves, but he does not want to live in a shelter and cannot afford a home.

"Living in the park, you can't trust no one," he said.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.