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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 28, 2006

'It's a crisis, and this is not helping the crisis'

 •  Next stop for some: Honolulu Hale

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Utuloa Langi, with daughter Teresa, examines one of six buses from Roberts Hawai‘i that will be converted to a shelter. Conversion of the buses will create space for about 90 homeless people, if bunk beds are built.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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  • The Institute for Human Services welcomes financial or food donations. Also welcomed are volunteers or groups to help with serving or preparing food. Call 845-7150 and ask for someone in the development office. They also know what help is most needed at the time.

  • To help with the donated buses that are being refurbished as homeless shelters, call Utuloa Langi at 223-5176. Volunteer laborers, carpenters and painters are needed to help tear out bus seats, build partitions and paint. Langi also would welcome graffiti painters.

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    For years, there have been occasional sweeps or closures at beaches, parks and other public properties, with officials citing sanitation, public safety and/or public access. The closure of Ala Moana Beach Park last night is the latest in a series of such high-profile actions involving city property.

    2001: 'A'ala Park is fenced off during a two-year renovation aimed at reclaiming the park from the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes.

    February 2002: City crews remove all public benches from Fort Street Mall between Hotel and Beretania streets, an area often used by the homeless. The city begins enforcing closure of the mall from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

    September 2002: Citing the need for a major facelift, city officials begin a 90-day

    closure of a campsite at Waimanalo Beach Park that had been a home to the homeless for years.

    February 2003: The city steps up criminal enforcement and cleaning procedures at Ala Moana Beach Park. The park is to be closed periodically on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights from midnight to 4 a.m. and the homeless are required to leave the park.

    Yesterday: A new round of night closures of Ala Moana Beach Park begins in preparation for a major repair and maintenance project. The park will be closed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. every day for a month. On April 25, 26 and 27, the park will be closed all day. The night closing could become permanent, a city spokesman said.

    Source: Advertiser records

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    Outreach workers for the homeless scrambled to find quick solutions yesterday in the hours before city officials began closing Ala Moana Beach Park overnight, forcing an estimated 200 people who live in the park to leave.

    But with most shelters full and waiting lists long, there was little hope of an immediate answer for most.

    A few people had already left the park, and some of those with jobs had moved into motels — eating up money they had been saving in hopes of renting a place.

    Outreach counselors said they were frustrated that city officials were closing the park without trying to work together toward a solution for the homeless.

    "Just to try and solve a horrible problem by pushing people around is not a good idea," said volunteer outreach worker Eileen Joyce, who publishes "Street Beat," a newsletter about homelessness. "Here these poor people work from the park and pay taxes.

    "The real issue is low wages and high rents. ... And everybody is suffering. You only have to miss a beat when you're living paycheck to paycheck before you're in the park with your shaving kit."

    For years, homeless people have been periodically displaced by sweeps or closures at beaches, parks or other public property as officials say they must address sanitation, public safety and/or public access issues.

    The popularity of Ala Moana Beach Park with tourists and residents, and its proximity to Ala Moana Center and a new lineup of luxury condominiums draws particular attention to the homeless there.

    City spokesman Bill Brennan said the decision to close the park at night was a reaction to two things — complaints from nearby residents and state plans to evict homeless people and criminals on Thursday from under H-1 overpasses near the airport, as reported in Wednesday's Advertiser.

    "We didn't want that criminal element infiltrating Ala Moana Beach Park," Brennan said. "So in an attempt to make it safer for all users we decided to try this closure temporarily ... But I think reading about the evictions under Nimitz Highway this week pushed this up."

    Brennan said that up to six city employees will attend Gov. Linda Lingle's Summit on Homelessness on Thursday at the state Capitol.

    "The state has better resources and expertise to deal with the homeless issue," he said. "The Department of Parks and Recreation is not the department to deal with the homeless situation. The mission of the parks department is to provide safe and clean parks for the public."

    But advocates for the homeless say it makes no sense to push these people from area to area instead of trying to come up with permanent living solutions.

    "It's not the answer," said Darlene Hein, program director of the Waikiki Health Center. "The issue is where are they to go? We've been working with the city and the Legislature and talking about this for a long time, and we have to start making some safe zones for people while they get themselves together. It's a crisis, and this is not helping the crisis."

    "Many of these people have jobs," said the Rev. Bob Nakata, pastor of Kahalu'u United Methodist Church. "They just can't afford rent.

    "And that's because there's such a shortage of housing units on the island. So to throw people out of the park, one of the few places where those who are working can manage to get a few hours of sleep, doesn't make sense."

    There is some help in the works, he noted. "We are very close to seeing a bill pass in the Legislature to have temporary safe zones in each county where tents can be erected and there will be people to maintain the area and security," he said.

    House Bill 2066 asks the State Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i to work with each county to identify locations that could be used for temporary shelters.

    The bill is likely to be a topic at the homelessness summit.

    "We need these kinds of safe spots for people so we can coordinate some intense services for those folks at the park and try and get them into appropriate settings," said Laura E. Thielen, an outreach worker with the Affordable Housing for the Homeless Alliance. "One of the problems we continually have is moving the homeless around, which makes providing services constantly harder."

    Other churches are taking action on their own to help.

    Utuloa Langi, an outreach worker who founded H5 — Hawai'i Helping the Hungry Have Hope — based at First United Methodist Church on Beretania Street, has already been given six buses by Roberts Hawai'i.


    That's enough space to sleep almost 90 homeless people if bunk beds are built. With five volunteers from Hawaiian Dredging over the past six Saturdays, he has converted one bus into eight small living spaces with beds, but said he is now struggling with city red tape that requires a payment of $1,200 per bus to switch ownership. He also needs a place to put the buses.

    "I feel this thing of using the buses as temporary shelter will work," Langi said.

    Langi, who also planned to be at Ala Moana last night, said it wouldn't take much time to get the other five buses ready — two weeks each, he thinks, with volunteer labor and donated wood.

    Already, ABC Furniture in Waipahu is giving the church "a good deal" on mattresses, he said, and a women's group from the Honolulu Community Church has donated blankets.

    "I can see the community reaching out and wanting to help out," he said. "But now we have to change the papers and pay all the taxes."

    A bill before the City Council would waive the fees, he said, and he hopes it will pass.

    Sisan Suda, speaking for Micronesians United, said he would also be at the park last night to help find a solution for about 60 Micronesians he believes are homeless and among the people who have been living there.

    "This is a crisis that we don't seem to care about," Suda said. "It's a crisis that maybe needs the attention of the United Nations."

    Margot Shrire, public relations and volunteer manager for the Institute for Human Services, said it is possible about 50 people from Ala Moana could be accommodated in the two IHS shelters — including 40 men and maybe about 10 women who would have to stay in the garage that IHS has been using as an overflow space.

    There are already about 400 people sleeping at IHS on any given night. "Even though we have limited extra space, we could have people showering and having meals here," she said.

    "We'll stretch things as much as we can" to help the people being evicted from Ala Moana park, she said. "But we're relying on the community for meal support. We need volunteer community groups to come and help, and we need donations of food. And then we can help the people coming to us more comfortably."

    Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.