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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 28, 2008

Leeward tent cities are mostly gone

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Wai'anae Coast Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ma'ili Beach Park is clear of tents and homeless people now. But, residents say, the homeless are still a neighborhood presence.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Two years ago, the situation was different. Then, there was a string of tent cities all along about 16 miles of the Wai'anae Coast.


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WAI'ANAE What was once 16 miles of ramshackle beach dwellings stretching from one end of the Wai'anae Coast to the other a homeless tent city that grabbed national attention has now largely vanished.

In its place stand pristine, inviting beach parks including those along a seven-mile swath where huge camps had been the most visible symbol of Hawai'i's homeless epidemic: Ma'ili Beach Park, Surfers Beach, Nani Kai Park, 7-Elevens Beach and the once-infamous Sewers Beach.

"It's nice to see more parks being used as parks again," said Jo Jordan, chairwoman of the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board, who also heads the board's Parks Committee. "You can go to Sewers Beach any day now and see people pole fishing from the beach. I'm seeing this place being used as a good, positive park for the first time in years."

Between fall 2006 and last month, the city government systematically evacuated and scrubbed these parks, and then closed them to the public between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., making it tough for tent dwellers to regain a foothold.

Where have the homeless gone?

Many hundreds opted for a shot at a better life through an emergency and transitional shelter system that the state spent tens of millions of dollars building over the past three years.

By most measures, the process has been successful. Homeless children on Wai'anae's beaches, once numbering in the hundreds, are no longer numerous. Meanwhile, two more state-sponsored shelters are expected to open on the coast by early January.

"In general, things are better, and most of the families with children will have been addressed by the time we open up Building 36 and Villages of Ma'ili," said Russ Saito, state coordinator for homeless solutions.

Together, those two transitional shelters will house about 450 people.

But Saito was quick to add that the biggest homeless challenge remains: There is not enough housing for O'ahu's unsheltered population, which is mainly single adults and couples.

That, "and an inability or unwillingness of some who are homeless to move into the shelter space that becomes available," he said.

"Even though several county beach parks have been cleared, the Leeward Coast has a noticeable population of homeless people, mostly displaced by the city beach closures. However, the homeless problem is increasing in other areas, including Waikiki, which is a concern because of the potential effect on tourism."

Some tent-dwellers are still in place on the coast only they're not visible from Farrington Highway, the four-lane thoroughfare leading in and out of the coast. They are hidden in bushes between the Wai'anae Boat Harbor and Wai'anae High School, for example. Or they are blocked from view at Forac Beach Park by a $2 million concrete bridge built as part of an emergency alternate route.

Still others have moved to a two-mile swath of tents along Ulehawa Beach in Nanakuli, or they have moved to the coast's largest and expanding tent mecca at Kea'au Beach Park and the bushes beyond an area as out of sight and mind as is possible to find on O'ahu.

Finally, some are part of a homeless migration from the beaches toward the mountains.


It is not clear how many homeless people remain on the Wai'anae Coast, or whether that number is rising or falling.

A University of Hawai'i study released this month as part of a Homeless Awareness Conference in Waikiki concluded that more than 5,000 people were living in homeless shelters on O'ahu in 2007 an increase of nearly 4,000 over 2005. The report did not indicate whether that upward trend continued through 2008.

The homeless crisis in Hawai'i intensified during the economic boom that came after the nation and state recovered from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Home prices shot up at the same time affordable housing largely disappeared. The big unknown now is how the global financial meltdown could compound the homeless crisis in Hawai'i.

"We don't know yet," said Saito. "While intuitively one might expect the homeless problem to increase, it's not clear whether the downturn in the economy has increased the number of homeless."


One veteran tent dweller who would only give her name as Sandra out of fear of being "harassed by police," said she can personally attest to what's happened to some who were moved off Wai'anae's beaches.

"I know where they're going," she said. "Inland living with relatives. People from the beach are living in other people's yards. I know, because I'm living on one of those properties right now."

The woman said that in some cases, property owners don't even realize homeless people are living on their land. Other owners know it but are too intimidated to complain, she said.

According to Sandra, homeless options on the Wai'anae Coast boil down to the shelter system, moving in with friends or relatives, or hiding out on private property. She said she personally would prefer to go into the shelter system. But she said she hasn't because there's no room left for singles like herself.

"And crime is going up, I'm telling you that right now," she added. "I've already been witnessing it."

Statistically, though, crime has gone down, said Maj. Michael Moses, who leads the Honolulu Police Department's District 8, which includes the coast.

Reported burglaries and car break-ins are both about 25 percent less compared with a year ago, he said. And while homelessness may be on the rise, that is not yet noticeable in part because of the extra shelters in the area, he said.

Police remain concerned and are waiting to see if the new hard times could ignite a homeless invasion of the region's vast, private agricultural lands, or cause a spike in crimes.

"Oh, of course we worry about it," said Moses. "Not only homelessness, but that people will be starting to get desperate as the economic situation gets worse. And then we might see an increase in property and other crimes.

"But all in all, it's been pretty good in our area. We've actually seen a reduction. It will be interesting to see any increase because of the situation with the economy."

More beach cleanups are being planned for next year on the coast, but Parks and Recreation Department Director Lester Chang said city officials have not yet decided where and when those will happen.

Jordan, the Neighborhood Board chairwoman, says she has mixed feelings. While she's pleased that beach parks have been revitalized, she says, she worries about the area's tent people, now that they have become less visible.

"I think the homeless are going to become the faceless people," she said. "And I think you're going to see less attention being paid to the subject."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.