Safety concerns mount in Kakaako [The Honolulu Star-Advertiser :: ]
(Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 20--When Kauai resident Michael Stollaire drove up to the Hawaii Children's Discovery Center with his wife and toddler, he was startled by the tent city of homeless people that greeted him.
"It was horrible," said Stollaire, recalling his April visit. "As parents of a 2-year-old, we think about safety first. We were shocked to see so many homeless there."
There was nothing wrong with the center itself, he said, because his child had fun there.
"But I wouldn't be surprised if there were others who drive up and see all the homeless people and decide to go somewhere else," he said. "There's got to be a bunch of people doing that."
Stollaire, an Internet entrepreneur, ended up writing an online review of the center for TripAdvisor. His advice? Lock your doors.
Stollaire isn't the only one feeling apprehensive about safety these days. At times the discovery center and other buildings in Kakaako on the ocean side of Ala Moana Boulevard appear to be under siege from a homeless population that has steadily grown over the years and sustains itself despite periodic police sweeps.
With its prime waterfront location between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, the 44-acre Kakaako Makai has long been coveted as a prime location for development. Yet the former landfill and industrial area has so far remained largely undeveloped and hidden from the community at large.
These factors make it an ideal spot for Hawaii's growing homeless population. On a recent weekday, nearly 100 tents crowded the sidewalks and open spaces around the discovery center, the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, the UH Cancer Center and other buildings and parks in the area.
"It's definitely an ongoing thing we're dealing with," said Lindsey Doi, community outreach officer for the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which controls the area's parkland.
An April HCDA report on the parks of Kakaako Makai described them as "havens for the homeless," with access diminished by those who avoid the area due to safety concerns.
Officials said there have been complaints about disorderly conduct, public urination and defecation as well as fighting among the homeless, prompting stepped-up security and twice-monthly police sweeps in which officers clear the sidewalks and confiscate belongings.
Security guard Sarafin Yhvah said he's seen the homeless population fluctuate over the past year, depending on the police sweeps. But the homeless population always seems to rebound.
"Some of them are quite comfortable," he said, pointing to one encampment with a diesel generator.
Sinfina Nichipung and her three young children were spread out on the shady lawn behind the discovery center, part of a sizable Micronesian homeless community in the area. She said life is hard because of the risks of living outside.
"Sometimes people are fighting," she said.
But it could be worse, she added, because her homeless neighbors are generally helpful and friendly and the location offers easy access to the local shelter. She said her husband is a cook, and they're hoping to get into a house soon.
Tracy Martin, 48, has been living on the discovery center sidewalk with his wife and 2-year-old daughter for nine months. He said he was a full-time kitchen manager living in Pearl City until last year when he suffered a mild heart attack.
He lost his job and was soon out on the streets.
They tried Waikiki first but didn't like it.
"They don't let you rest," he said. That's when he ran into a friend who had been living in Kakaako Makai for seven years.
"For four or five years, no one ever bothered him," he said. "But now it's gotten to the point where the police sweeps are every two weeks."
Martin said the sweeps are tough on his family and his neighbors alike. The items he retrieves from the city for a $200 fee are often broken and unusable, he said, and setting up camp again is like starting over.
But he comes back anyway.
"It's centralized and close to doctors, preschools, agencies and jobs," he said. "I'm comfortable here. I know the area, and there are a lot of safe zones."
But Martin, turning to his young daughter, insisted his goal is to get off the streets.
"My daughter isn't even 3 years old, but they're calling her a criminal because she's sleeping on the sidewalk," he said.
In the meantime, safety and access remain an issue for both those who visit and work in the area.
Anjuan Simmons, a software project manager from Texas, said he found it "disconcerting" when he and his family saw a homeless encampment outside the discovery center during a visit in May. Simmons said he and his wife thought about driving away but decided to go inside anyway -- only to discover fun activities and an atmosphere that was clean and organized -- unlike the sidewalks outside.
Liane Usher, president of the Hawaii Children's Discovery Center, would not say anything about the homeless situation, saying the center's board decided the topic was too hot to comment.
Late last month, the Burns School of Medicine noted the recent rise in the homeless population in an email message to the campus community.
Elwyn Watkins, the school's building and security systems engineer, described a few incidents in which individuals were approached by homeless folks. He cautioned students, faculty and staff to be more vigilant for their own personal safety and urged them to call for help if they feel threatened.
"If someone is accosted or hurt by someone else, the police need to know about it in order to take appropriate actions," Watkins wrote. "Nothing can be done if everyone only talks amongst each other and no one reports it. Non-reporting only leads our community leaders to believe there is no problem."
Next door, the cancer center held a safety seminar in March featuring speakers from the Honolulu Police Department, UH-Manoa campus security and the cancer center discussing crime prevention tips and good safety practices.
"The cancer center has committed to hosting this seminar every year," center representative Stacy Wong said in a statement.
Both the medical school and the cancer center are offering security escorts to anyone who feels they need one.
Meanwhile, the HCDA last month renewed its annual $345,000 jobs training program for Kakaako homeless and created four new paid positions for homeless individuals working with Waikiki Health, which operates the Next Step shelter in the area.
Doi acknowledged that the program isn't going to end homelessness by itself. Rather, she said, it is only part of the solution.
Another effort by the agency, she said, is the possible creation of "activities" in the parks, which would generate "body heat" to discourage the homeless from taking over open spaces.
The HCDA is writing an environmental impact statement to determine the impact of various activities in Kakaako Makai, including the 30-acre Waterfront Park.
Some proposals for activities have included a volleyball academy and an art incubator. Previous ideas have included a surf museum, performing arts center, Hawaiian music and dance museum and farmers market.
"The proposal to reinvigorate the area with new activities would serve to increase foot traffic in the area and compassionately disturb the homeless and urge them to seek shelter elsewhere. In this way, we can take back the parks for public use and enjoyment," according to the agency's Kakaako Makai parks report.
The area is also the location of the proposed Obama Presidential Library. The 8 acres -- between the Hawaii Children's Discovery Center and Kakaako Waterfront Park -- is fenced off.
Those who have advocated for the Hawaii presidential library have said it would help revitalize the makai area.
Is there any chance the surrounding homelessness would be an obstacle to the presidential library?
Consider this: The proposed site of the University of Chicago, widely regarded as the front-runner to win the library, is in Chicago's South Side, largely considered the epicenter of gun violence in a city that saw more than 400 murders last year. Protesters in Chicago have urged the university to use its resources on a trauma center rather than a presidential library.
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