Criminals infest 'hidden city'
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rod Ohira
Thousands of motorists use it daily, but few know what goes on beneath the Ke'ehi Interchange's 12 overpasses, where people have come to live, hide or commit crimes on state property.
Dozens of homeless people have set up makeshift shelters beneath the interchange. But much of the crime stems from those who use the homeless as a screen for their illegal activities, police said.
"Outsiders" frequent the area. The homeless call them "big hitters" because they have money and drugs.
In addition to the plight of squatters, police and state officials are concerned about increasing problems with fires, thefts, organized gambling and drug dealing, as well as sanitation and health issues.
The state Department of Transportation, at the urging of police, plans a cleanup and sweep of the area at the end of this month.
"We talk to the homeless there all the time and it's not so much them but outsiders, the criminal element, who are drawn to the communities the homeless set up, that create problems," said police Sgt. Lance Yashiro, a former outreach counselor who has been encouraging officials since last November to clean up what he describes as a "hidden city in plain view" on DOT property.
"We have criminals doing organized gambling, drug dealers with weapons to protect their money and drugs, drug users, and people just hiding out from the law here."
The outsiders show up at night.
The area under the Dillingham off-ramp is used as a distribution point, where smuggled drugs are handed out to runners, said Sgt. Dru Akagi, who was assigned to the area until he was promoted to East Honolulu last week.
Akagi also noted that it's a dangerous area for unsuspecting motorists with car trouble at night. "We've warned people that they could get robbed," Akagi said. "At night, it becomes a hazard."
Police receive about two or three theft calls a month from nearby businesses.
Warning signs and chainlink fences don't keep people out and roadside landscaping provides seclusion from the eyes of highway motorists headed east on Nimitz and west on Kamehameha.
Some of the overpasses in the area between Kamehameha Highway and Middle Street on one side, and Ahua Street toward Mapunapuna on the other, are sloping exit ramps or low express zipper lanes 5 to 10 feet high that offer ideal overhead cover. There are hundreds of places, including rafters under the overpasses, where people have set up shelter.
The area has become a garbage dump. Kalihi and Moanalua streams, which empty into nearby Ke'ehi Lagoon, are cluttered with smelly trash.
Yashiro supervises Kalihi District Patrol Sectors 3 and 4, which include the Ke'ehi Interchange area.
The cleanup and sweep is planned for March 29 to 31. DOT will supply equipment, and work-furlough inmates from Laumaka Work Furlough Center will provide the manpower for the cleanup, Yashiro said. State social workers will be on site to handle requests for help from the homeless. Police and state sheriff's deputies are handling security.
As a follow-up to oral notifications, police started issuing written notices last Wednesday to the homeless announcing the pending operation. Approximately 15 to 20 people who had been living in the area left this month. Some of those had been living in studio-size makeshift camps that included separate rooms for cooking and sleeping near the Disabled American Veterans Hawai'i headquarters lot.
A few have moved to the banks of Kalihi Stream on the Ke'ehi side of Nimitz Highway.
The cleanup will be difficult for safety reasons.
There are low, tunnel-like spaces less than 4 feet high under Nimitz Highway across from the DAV lot where people have crawled in to live. The spaces are filled with trash, including discarded syringes.
"There are piles of trash. ... We don't know if there's hazardous material in it," Yashiro said.
Yashiro and his sector officers — Billy Forrester, Michael Tiwanak, Ikaika Aiu, Virginia Jaksha, Brian Oato, Daniel Tsue and Clessen Erner — are familiar with most of the people living under the overpasses.
Akagi said the homeless in the area are either people who have jobs but choose to live there; drug users, most of them doing ice; or those who choose the homeless lifestyle, like one man who has been there 15 years. Some are veterans, others are illegal immigrants, Akagi said.
Tarps strung to trees, pup tents and small wooden shacks are common. But a few are living in the rafters below the overpasses, where they've laid down wooden pallets. The rafter shelters are accessible by homemade drop ladders.
Still others have built homes inside chainlink fencing set up by the state. They reach their living quarters through wooden crawl shafts built on the rafters.
The area is cluttered with car batteries, a primary source of power for people living there, and the casings of wiring that has been stripped of copper. One homeless man said he gets $1.40 a pound for copper. "If they get $3 or $4, that's big money for them," Akagi said.
The Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services have difficulty responding to calls "under the overpass" because no specific location is given, Yashiro said.
Yashiro said there also are concerns that burning rubbish against concrete columns may be damaging the supports.
Reach Rod Ohira at firstname.lastname@example.org.