The Tent City: Running Out Of Room For Sweeps

Tents line the sidewalks at Ohe Street near Waterfront Park in Kakaako. 30dec2014 . photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tents in Kakaako. 30dec2014 . photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat.

As I drive by Kaka’ako, I see homeless children, mothers, and fathers, pushing their possessions in a shopping cart. I see others chugging their problems away with Karkov Vodka. I see a crazy lady with white wispy hair preaching nonsense to the world on the corner of McCully and Kapiolani Blvd. I see “Mooch,” a native Hawaiian surfer, every Sunday, where he lives at my favorite surf spot, Rockpiles by Ala Moana.

I find myself trying to sweep my memories of the homeless away under a bridge, just like how the government tries to sweep them away, hoping they’ll be less visible. The fact of the matter is that sweeping away homeless people with more “Sit-lie” bands do nothing but move them around. Conducting city sweeps does not solve the root of the homeless problem. The government must stop wasting time on money and sweeps and work towards more permanent/affordable housing along with a livable minimum wage.

“Officials estimate more than 7,600 people are homeless in Hawaii,” with the number growing each year. Although the unemployment rate in Hawaii is less than 5%, the high cost of living and especially the price of housing, keeps even those employed living on the streets. City and State officials have resorted to city sweeps, evicting homeless from their tent homes to keep the general public and tourist safe.


  • The homelessness “rate has risen 35% since 2009 and 4% just in this past year”
  • “32% of the homeless are of Native Hawaiian ethnicity
  • 22% of Hawaii’s homeless have some form of employment”
  • “50% are under the age of 6
  • Of the adults:
    • 60% are severely mentally ill
    • 47% without a high school education
    • 40% unsheltered
    • 34% chronically homeless
    • 12% veterans
    • 8% chronic substance abusers”

Besides the unsightly presence of the homeless in Waikiki, beaches and parks, they also present many health and safety issues. Encampments next to canals or rivers pose serious health threats as the homeless defecate in and toss trash where ever it is most convenient for them. Water may become (more) contaminated. Contaminated stream water will pollute the ocean, kill marine life, and infect those exposed to the water.

Homelessness could increase expenses to others and taxpayers. David Ippen, the owner of martial arts school called Taekwondo Honolulu personally experienced the cost of homelessness. In his new location on Isenberg Street, Ippen watched his water bill quadruple from its normal amount. He found that the homeless, who took up residence at the old stadium park near his school, was using his outside faucet to shower at night. Since then, he has had to lock the faucet, which resulted in the reduction of his cost of water. Sweeps by the City & County of Honolulu come at a price to taxpayers. The city spends about $750,000 a year on sweeps alone. More homeless means more sweeps. Yet, these sweeps solve nothing but pacify politician’s constituents who log complaints. Sweeps are actually causing more harm than good when personal effects of the homeless are taken and cost money to replace, putting the homeless in dire straits.

Homelessness raises crime rates. An entire concentration of the homeless in a location is even worse. Tim Bower, a state lawmaker, pressed charges against two homeless teens in Kakaako for an alleged attack on him. The Children’s Discovery Center experienced a reduction of visitors since families do not feel safe parking and walking to the Center, which is next to the Kakaako tent city. In Kalihi, the Kapalama Canal encampment has seen an increase in crime and assaults.

Homelessness doesn’t just look bad; it presents health, safety, and financial issues.

The growth of homelessness and high visibility of the Kakaako and Kapalama encampment has caused pubic outcry and businesses seeking government to take action. The government tried to take matters into their hands when in 2014, Mayor Caldwell passed the “Sit-Lie” Bill. The bill prevents “people from sitting or lying on the busiest public pavements (primarily for Waikiki) between 5am and 11pm. Those who do so can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for up to 30 days.” The ban was created to protect businesses that raised safety concerns for customer when the homeless would sleep in their business doorways.

More recently, Governor Ige assembled a new leadership team to tackle the issue of homelessness. The “team will include representatives from law enforcement and nonprofit organizations. The group plans to identify parcels of land that can be used to create temporary shelters in one or two communities and work to transfer residents of homeless encampments to shelters.” In the meantime, Honolulu leaders approved two bills: 44 and 46. Bill 44, presented by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, extends the “sit-lie ban to two malls—College Walk Mall and Kila Kalikimaka Mall—in her district’s A’ala Area.” Bill 46 approves “a measure that bans camping or putting up tents along “city-owned streams” if doing so creates a public health or safety risk.” As for shelter solutions, “Caldwell has promised $3 million to house a hundred of the city’s homeless and another $43 million for more housing. But the city has offered few details, and the new homes will not be ready for years.” Councilman Joey Manahan, presenter of Bill 46, acknowledges that the state isn’t “moving fast enough on creating new housing. [Therefore] we have no choice but to legislate more sit-lie.”

Legislating more “sit-lie” bans and authorizing more city sweeps will just push Hawaii’s homeless from corner to corner, side walk to sidewalk, canal to canal. Health and safety issues will just move to another block. The sweeps are ineffective and expensive, costing taxpayers about $750,000 each year.

Some sweeps leave homeless people worse off, “especially when criminal citations or fines occur.” Stefanie Sanchez, who lives along the Kapalama Canal encampment with her five year old daughter says, “sometimes we can’t carry it all, so things get thrown out” or even taken away by police. The owner must pay $200 to retrieve their items. The system is flawed; the fine will set some homeless further back instead of helping them back on their feet. Since many homeless cannot afford $200, the crime rate will increase. Implementing more “Sit-lie” bans without housing for homeless to find refuge is cruel. Insufficient housing and shelters cause homelessness and sweeps simply make the homeless scatter to another block to set up their tent. There are not many places for homeless to escape to in Hawaii. Moving homeless around is ineffective and will not solve the issue.

Hilton Moore used to be homeless in Hawaii. He worked as security for Louis Vuitton on Kalaukaua Avenue for $10 per hour. However, the high cost of living kept Moore living in homeless shelters for four years. Hawaii has one of the highest rental rates in the nation, averaging about $1,800 a month for a two bedroom apartment—“which means you would need to make $31 an hour to afford that rent.” He recently moved to Virginia living in a “ 2,800 square-foot house with [a] pool on two acres of land” for $700 a month. Moore has experienced being homeless in Hawaii to being ‘house full’ in Virginia because of high rents. Wages in Hawaii are not livable. Homelessness will increase because rents are rising while wages remain low. Rental prices must decrease, wages must increase, or a combination of both must happen to combat the root of homelessness.

Employees at UFC Gym Honolulu must park in an empty back lot in Kakaako. The lot is surrounded with homeless people; there have been many cases of break-ins and threatening encounters with the homeless in the area. I witnessed sweeps in Kakaako and within a few hours, some homeless are back building their tent home within a block or two from their original location. Sweeps are ineffective, inefficient, and inhumane. As a 21-year old woman employed by UFC Gym and finishing work around 9pm, walking to the back parking lot is scary. Will my truck be broken in to? What if they mug me? Try to attack me? I am constantly on my guard.

The facts are clear: sweeps are ineffective and wages remain low.

The government does a great job in determining where homeless cannot be. It’s easy to sweep them away. But how many times do we have to sweep to realize that doesn’t solve anything? We are running out of rug to sweep! To tackle the homeless epidemic, first, the publics’ view of homeless must change, creating a more compassionate community. Most people see homelessness as a nuisance. Not all homeless people are lazy, drug addicts, high school dropouts, or mentally dysfunctional. Communities need to accept the concept of low-income housing, which will be a start in addressing homelessness.

Secondly, the government needs to provide permanent housing for homeless instead of expanding city sweeps. Since the government cannot provide timely and sufficient shelter for the homeless, they should mirror Robert McDonald’s approach for progress with homeless veterans in Hawaii. McDonald, The secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, offered his audience at Mission Memorial “case management services to any landlords willing to help out the veterans.” The government should create subsidies or tax incentives for landlords to provide low-income housing. Collaborating with landlords creates revenue for them and lends a helping hand to the homeless by taking the homeless off the streets. This will also be a stepping-stone to creating a more compassionate community.

To further stabilize the economy, Professor Dawn Morais Webster at UH Manoa, suggests creating an ‘Angie’s List’ to help the homeless: a “centralized database that allows the people of Hawaii to commit to providing very specific forms of help that could go toward getting a family or an individual off the street.” Webster claims, “If Angie’s List can connect homeowners to handymen, and e-harmony can help people find soul mates, the leadership team should be able to create an online service that lists the kinds of help needed.” Ordinary citizens will have the opportunity to step up and help the less fortunate, again embodying a more caring community.

Hawaii needs to work towards more affordable housing and a livable minimum wage to decrease homelessness. Robert McDonald is right, “Eliminating homelessness is this country is a team sport. It can’t be done by the city alone. It can’t be done by the state alone. It can’t be done by the federal government alone. It can’t be done by the private sector alone. It’s got to be done by all of us working together.”


One Comment to “The Tent City: Running Out Of Room For Sweeps”

  1. This issue needs attention. Hawaii is too small of a state to find temporary solutions to huge issues. At this point, our House of Representatives should be reaching out to White House officials for funding so we can solve this problem. Proof is in the numbers and with appropriate data collected Hawaii has a chance to lock some more funding to solve the homeless problem.

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