Cover Story

Image: Manny Pangilinan

An encampment grows in a “gray area” of Waikīkī.
Comes with video


Cover image for Nov 25, 2009

It’s five o’clock on a recent breezy Monday evening in Kapiolani Park. The setting winter sun will soon turn everything a brilliant, postcard gold–the banyan and ironwood trees, the freshly mowed grass, the faces of something like 100 homeless men and women standing patiently in a line, waiting to be fed.

The line snakes alongside the public bathrooms and concession stand that mark the ‘ewa boundary of Queen’s Surf, a few hundred square yards of beachfront and park just ‘ewa of the Waikiki Aquarium that have become home to a growing number of campers, whose tents (by 11pm the same evening there are 23 erected) line the eight-foot wide strip of grass between the curb and sidewalk of Kalakaua Avenue.

The campers, who hail from Waianae and New York, among a multitude of other places, have brought the homeless issue front and center for Honolulu residents, for the tourists who regularly stroll down from the Waikiki strip into the park, and for city officials, who have in recent months tried to tighten regulations in an effort to rid the park of what one City and County maintenance worker terms “the park users who are there longer than most.”

A gray area

B.J., seated in an aluminum beach chair on a recent morning, falls into this category. Born and raised in Honolulu, she has lived in the park off and on for the last six years, and has seen the number of homeless fluctuate, as well as the on-again, off-again pressure from police to move her and the others out.

“10pm to 5am, you cannot stay in the park–that’s the law,” she explained. “That’s why we sleep over there, next to the sidewalk. That’s one gray area.”

A gray area that has City Councilman Charles Djou (whose district includes Waikiki) hopping mad. “The vagrants in Kapiolani Park have been exploiting a loophole in the law by sleeping outside the boundary of the park.”

Parks and Recreation Director Lester Chang stated that the city is “not certain” whether the sidewalk easement is legally part of the park or not. “We are studying old property records–but currently have no policy regarding the sidewalk area.”

“It has been frustrating for me, and for my constituents,” said Djou. “I receive complaints almost daily. The biggest travesty has been that the park has gone from being a real gem and a treasure for everyone in the community to the exclusive domain of a select few.”

Djou also has a problem with those who provide free food to the people living in the park. “I think they are commendable–but misguided. I mean, take IHS (the Institute for Human Services). If you go there, they will give you free housing and food. But they will also assign you a caseworker, to evaluate your needs. If you have a mental or drug problem, they will get you care, guide you toward getting better–even try to find you employment. But the no-strings-attached kind of help that is provided in Kapiolani Park is simply exacerbating the problem.”

This “if you feed them they will come” criticism is one that Sky St. John, the pastor of Unity Church, has heard before. He and his parishioner volunteers distribute the hot dinners at Queen’s Surf every Monday. He seems able to live with the fact that there are many people in the community (and even in his own congregation) who do not appreciate what he’s doing. “We realize that feeding the people is not the answer to homelessness. It is what we do until there is an answer. The real question is what is the loving thing to do. And Pastor Bob has set the example for the rest of us to follow.”

“The problems are visible”

Bob Erb (known to most everyone in the park as Pastor Bob), founder of the Waikiki Beach Outreach Ministry, has been feeding the area’s homeless for more than six years. On this evening he blows a conch shell and begins a brief sermon directed at those queued up for food, quoting from a small Bible, held in his outstretched hand. Other than the sermon he does little overt proselytizing–his focus seems more secular.

“A couple of churches like Unity help out–the rest of the week, myself and volunteers feed everybody who shows up hungry. When I first started, I fed 150 people in the Diamond Head to Ala Moana Beach Park area. Now it’s more like 300.”

Erb is passionate; he gets in your face; he apologizes for being loud. He’s loud because people don’t hear him, he says. He is not a fan of Councilman Djou.

“Djou is d’jerk,” said Erb. He’s the problem–not these people in the park. He calls them names, but he doesn’t know what it feels like to be homeless. I do. I spent years on the street. But I didn’t start out that way. I was an engineer for a big power company in the mainland. I lived in luxury, surrounded by wealth. My neighbors, behind those closed doors–there was more drug and alcohol abuse and mental problems than you see out here–but it was invisible. Out here you can see them, the problems are visible.”

For some park campers, the problem appears to be the lack of any other place to stay. Misty is a part-Hawaiian woman who said that “all it took was one asshole landlord” to put her in a tent, close to the Aquarium. She explained that she is attending HPU and trying to get enough money together to rent an apartment. She would like to be off the ground and sleeping in a real bed within six months.

For Misty, homelessness in the park has its levels. “Some people are working–some are on drugs or alcohol.” She pointed out that there is also a geographical dimension to the park’s population. “As you go down the sidewalk that way (‘ewa) the people are a little more worse off. More drugs, more violent types.”

Police regularly patrol the Queen’s Surf area, particularly at night, and HPD Major Greg Lefcourt said officers make arrests “when appropriate.” Misty said that police have recently come by to take photos of the campers and demand names, in order, they say, to check for outstanding warrants. “But why me?” she asked. “Why don’t they check other people using the park? I’m not doing anything illegal. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

According to a park groundskeeper (who requested anonymity), the campers are sometimes loud, and some clearly have drug or mental problems, but “…generally, their behavior is not that much different from the regular, taxpaying park users–who can actually be some of the biggest slobs. There are usually one or two guys (among the campers) who keep the area clean and actually help us out.”

Spoiling the party

Others are less accepting of the campers’ presence.

“Our female employees are terrified to walk toward Waikiki at eight o’clock when they get off work,” said Andrew Rossiter, director of the Waikiki Aquarium. “I’ve heard stories of tourists being verbally accosted. For many tourists I think, regrettably, this may be the dominant image they carry back with them of Waikiki Beach. I mean, clearly these people need some place to live–just not Kapiolani Park.”

Although negative comments by tourists, deploring the presence of the park campers, have appeared on travel websites periodically, visitors strolling along the sidewalk recently did not seem overly perturbed to be sharing space with the homeless. A couple from British Columbia (requesting anonymity), repeat visitors to Honolulu here to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, seemed to take the situation in stride. “We have poor people on the street back home,” the man pointed out. “They are everywhere, aren’t they? We actually thought these people were the rich homeless–they seem so clean and well off. Now, if they were begging–that would be a bit of turn-off, wouldn’t it?”

Local sentiment, at least anecdotally, seemed less charitable. Arno Bann, Kapahulu resident, resting on a low wall at the Natatorium, called the encampment at Queen’s Surf “terrible.” He said he feels that the tourist business and local users of the park are suffering. “You see people try to open their car doors down there–you cannot, because there’s a tent in the way. And some of them are actually tourists–with a tent. What if all the tourists came with a tent?”

This is not my beautiful house

Perhaps the question most often asked of a homeless person is, what happened to you? The answers in Kapiolani Park are as varied as the personnel. Paul, sitting with others around a chessboard beneath a large plastic tarp, is from Wisconsin, in the Islands for a little over a year. “I’m a carpenter by trade. I’ve done it all–built houses from the ground up. When I went to the carpenters’ union here, they wouldn’t hire me. I wasn’t local.” Paul does not camp in the park; he feels more secure sleeping at night at the foot of Diamond Head Crater.

For Paniani, a Radford High graduate who was born in Samoa, life at Queen’s Surf fits his philosophy. “Eat, drink, and be merry–that’s what I live by,” he explained (for a fee of 50 cents). “Right on–that’s only two-fifty short of a bottle,” he said. Paniani, recently released from Halawa prison, lives outside “for the freedom of it.” He paused for a moment to gaze out on the waves rolling in at Waikiki. “It’s my choice, you know? No tragedy brought me here.”

Councilman Djou maintains that choice shouldn’t be an option.

“If I wanted to buy Queen’s Surf it would cost millions–and these people live there for free?” he said. “Why should they go to Kakaako Next Step? [the State-funded homeless shelter]–they have rules there. No alcohol, no drugs, no sex, no fighting. Why would I exchange the freedom (of living in the park) for that? We have a responsibility for those in our society who are least able to help themselves–but what do you do for those who do not want help?”

Kate Bepko, spokesperson for IHS, said that on November 16 her facility had 60 beds available for single men, and 45 spaces for single women. But Erb defends the community he serves, and argues that dealing with homelessness is more complex than Djou–and even those who are homeless themselves–might suggest.

“Look, I know that when you ask a lot of people why they are homeless, they will answer that they choose to be,” said Erb. “But the reality is that after you’re out here for three or fourth months there is a fundamental shift in your outlook that occurs. You have learned to take the punishment, the blows, the booze, maybe, that helps you forget. You find that you are focused entirely on survival–to eat, to stay clean, to find shelter–it consumes your life and then it becomes your life. You lose faith in things ever being different.”

Erb also says that homeless shelters such as IHS aren’t an adequate solution. “I’ve stayed at IHS,” he said. “No privacy, no security, no sleep possible, really. You talk to these people out here. What they need is what I know you have–a room of your own.”

Connie Mitchell, Executive Director of IHS, agrees. She believes the City’s proposed “housing first” project on River Street is a paradigm of the future. The idea, which Mitchell stresses has been successful in Seattle and other mainland cities, is to construct an apartment building in an epicenter of homelessness like Chinatown, where people can live independently while receiving the necessary assistance from social services, located on-site.

“Research shows that providing the stability of secure housing is the first thing needed. After that, you can move on to treatment, to providing other services,” Mitchell said. Although the money has been allocated for the housing-first project, vehement opposition from the affected neighborhood boards has prevented it from going any further than the proposal stage.

“People say ‘not in my backyard,’” said Erb. “But this is a small island. This whole place is the yard.”

For B.J., the yard is Queen’s Surf, the home she knows, even if it is sometimes difficult to sleep in the open (she doesn’t use a tent), and existing month-to-month on a SSI check and an EBT card. Recently, she has started to worry about the ever-increasing number of campers, about the police, knowing that sweeps have occurred before, despite what the law may say. “Something going to happen,” she said. “Nothing good last long time.”