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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Maui sweeps out harbor homeless

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

This 50-year-old man, who declined to be identified, said he didn't want to leave his shack at the Kahului breakwater because he can't afford to rent. The county wasn't offering an alternative campsite.

CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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State and county officials, advocates for the homeless and service providers will meet today to discuss solutions to homelessness. The meeting will be from 10 a.m. to noon at the Honolulu International Airport's Interisland Conference Center.

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A sweep began yesterday of Nimitz Highway overpasses near Honolulu International Airport that police say are a haven for both homeless people and criminals.

State Department of Transportation personnel, police and workers from other state agencies began their sweep and cleanup beneath the 12 overpasses of the Ke'ehi Interchange, DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said.

The area had become a concern because of fires and crime, Ishikawa said. Illegal trash dumps and camps of homeless people also were a concern.

Ishikawa said about 100 personnel were on hand and that the cleanup was expected to take a week. He said that the homeless had been told about the sweep and only one or two were there when authorities arrived.

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KAHULUI, Maui Heavy equipment moved into the county park at the Kahului Harbor breakwater yesterday to clear garbage, brush and junk cars and serve notice to the homeless community there that it was time to leave.

The encampment of 100 to 200 people, including children, had been allowed to grow the past two to three years. But after an outbreak of staph infections and rodent problems, health and county officials decided the situation could not continue. Campers were told March 14 to move out by 6 a.m. yesterday or be arrested for trespassing and forfeit any remaining belongings.

The county softened its position on a firm deadline and there was little apparent resistance yesterday as the cleanup work began. County spokeswoman Ellen Pelissero said there had been no arrests by the end of day.

Many of the campers had already left and others were packing up. A few others were waiting to be forced out, saying they had nowhere else to go.

"Why should I move from here and just go somewhere else?" said Bernice, 45, who has been living with her husband in a plywood shack equipped with a generator. She asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy.

Bernice, who is unemployed but previously worked as a laborer and security guard, said she has been unable to get into low-income housing and was embarrassed to be associated with the breakwater homeless when she moved there in September.

"I don't want to be a burden to the kids. I don't want to be a burden to anyone else," she said. "Just leave us alone and give us a little space and we'll take care of it. There's only two of us."

The county is not providing the breakwater homeless with a temporary campsite, as Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann did this week after ordering that Ala Moana Beach Park be closed at night, displacing 200 homeless.

The homeless problem is statewide, and Gov. Linda Lingle is convening a meeting today to discuss the issue with state and county leaders, advocates for the homeless and service providers.

Dan, 44, a fisherman and part-time house painter, has been living with his girlfriend in a shelter on the rocky edge of the Kahului breakwater for a little more than a year. He said he's moving his fishing gear and other belongings to a friend's house until he decides where to go next, most likely to a similar spot where he can fish and pick 'opihi.

"Even when I was paying rent I'm always by the ocean," said Dan, who also asked that his last name not be used.

He said he doesn't have a problem with the county clearing out the breakwater. "I'm pretty sure things were getting carried away," he said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa had been hesitant to force out the campers, saying a sweep would just move the problem to another area.

"It's a never-ending shell game until we find permanent housing for them," he said yesterday.

The breakwater's central location provided the homeless with easier access to social services, schools and jobs, and made it easier for police and health officials to monitor the encampment, Arakawa said.

"It's not the worst area" for the homeless, the mayor said, because the breakwater is not highly used by the general public compared with beach parks, where campers have been an problem in the past.

"We deal with those who really want help and get the others to a place that is the least obnoxious to the community," he said.

The park at the breakwater will be closed for a month while the county and Department of Health conduct what Arakawa called "a scorched earth" cleanup to get rid of rodents, trash, abandoned cars and other debris dumped there, not only by the homeless.

He said county and health officials are discussing whether to install running water to improve sanitation, although he acknowledged that could encourage campers to return.

There are an estimated 250 to 450 homeless people living outdoors on Maui.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.