Hawaii's homeless, rousted from parks, now living in remote areas
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
Remote, unimproved and isolated O'ahu beaches have become the newest homeless refuge for some of those forced to vacate Wai'anae Coast park encampments in recent months.
With fewer beach parks available, homeless camps are spreading to unimproved coastal stretches — with Ma'ili Point and an area beyond Kea'au Beach Park chief among the sites.
These areas are increasingly favored by homeless who want no part of the shelter system. That's because of an incorrect perception that these locations are outside the jurisdiction of Honolulu police enforcing the effort to keep reclaimed city beaches free of tent city populations.
While homeless-service workers say the number of tent dwellers has increased in these locations, precise figures have been elusive. A City & County of Honolulu Point-in-Time Count of Homeless conducted in May noted that volunteers along the Wai'anae Coast did not survey "homeless individuals residing in areas that they felt were unsafe to visit."
Some unimproved and secluded beach locations present additional health and sanitation risks as more tent dwellers move in and take over. And police report that a recent rise in crime at Kea'au Beach Park and the bush area beyond could be a result of overcrowding.
"We're discussing what we can do when they congregate on our beaches," said Russ Saito, homeless-solutions coordinator for the state, referring to a bush area on unimproved city state, and private lands in Makaha with a reputation so fearsome it's often referred to as "the wild west."
"In the area past Kea'au Beach Park, it's hard even for us to ask our outreach providers to go out there. Because many of them are women, and that's not exactly the safest environment."
Utu Langi, who in addition to running the Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, feeds Wai'anae Coast homeless on weekends through his program Hawai'i Helping the Hungry Have Hope, said he has noticed the growing population of unsheltered people in isolated coastal areas.
"The natural reaction to the closing of these parks is that they (homeless folks) hide out," said Langi. "They tend to find places that are kind of hard to access. When if comes down to our trying to provide for some of their needs, it's pretty challenging."
More than two years ago, the City and County of Honolulu adopted a strategy to clean up and reclaim city beach parks along the Wai'anae Coast taken over by an explosion of tent dwellers made homeless largely by rapidly rising home prices beginning around 2003.
The strategy became feasible after Hawai'i Gov. Linda Lingle passed an emergency proclamation that allowed the state to fast-track an emergency and transitional homeless shelter system along the Leeward Coast.
Once that system was in place, city police began systematically giving homeless beach people four weeks' notice to leave a particular beach park by a certain date, after which it would be closed to the public while work crews cleaned and improved the facilities.
When a park reopened, signs were posted stating it would be closed nightly from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — making it difficult for tent dwellers to regain a foothold.
Since October 2006, hundreds of beach dwellers on the Wai'anae Coast have been displaced as city work crews have conducted park improvement projects at more than half a dozen major beach parks.
In June, a large and long-standing encampment at Depots Beach in Nanakuli disappeared. Two weeks ago, city crews shut down Lahilahi Park in Makaha after the last of some three dozen homeless people pulled up stakes and departed on July 19.
Tulutulu Toa, homeless-ness specialist for the Wai'anae Community Outreach program, said 20 of those at Lahilahi have signed up at the state's emergency homeless shelter in Wai'anae. As for the rest, there's no telling where they could be.
"Some of the individuals move, but we don't know where they move to," she said. "They move in with friends or relatives, or they move to another beach."
More and more, they are moving to an area between Lualualei Naval Road in Nanakuli and Ma'ili Point along Farrington Highway.
One person who moved there after being evacuated from another beach park is Renee Barrett, 47. Barrett says she has spent much of her life in prison and admits she's had problems with drug and alcohol abuse. That's in the past, she insists. Now, she wants only to stay on the beach.
"This is my lifestyle," said Barrett. "I refuse to go in the shelters. It would be like I'm institutionalized again. I've maxed out my time."
If she's ever forced to leave the water's edge, she'll find shelter on somebody's porch, she said. Or she'll sleep on the sidewalk: "I know how to survive."
According to Toa, some move to unimproved beaches because they believe those are outside Honolulu Police Department jurisdiction.
"Yes, that's correct," said Toa, who believes the Nanakuli to Ma'ili Point stretch will be evacuated and cleaned by the city and county before the end of this year. If and when that happens, Kea'au Beach Park in Makaha — already the most crowded and remote beach park population on the Wai'anae Coast, and a growing concern for police — could explode and spill over into the vast thicket known as "the wild west."
Toa tells tent dwellers she invites into the shelter system that one day all beaches along the Wai'anae Coast — including those in the farthest reaches — will be evacuated, cleaned and thereafter closed overnight. Whether there would be enough shelter space to accommodate the waiting homeless, were they to decide they even wanted it, is anybody's guess.
And it is highly unlikely that more shelter space will be built, given the state's budget crisis, Saito said.
Meanwhile, time seems to be running out for those who sleep under the stars. Honolulu Police Maj. Michael Moses warned that no beaches along the Wai'anae Coast are outside police jurisdiction.
"Ma'ili Point is actually on unimproved city and park land," said Moses. "And we have jurisdiction at state parks — different rules, though. We can enforce state park rules, which actually are stricter than the city park rules."