Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi has not had enough time in his transition phase to present a detailed plan for attacking the complex problem of homelessness on Oahu.
But in a phone conversation Saturday he made it clear that he stands by his campaign promise, especially during the pandemic, to eliminate the city’s current policy of “compassionate disruption.” That’s a Kirk Caldwell administration program to periodically clear out illegal homeless encampments from parks and sidewalks.
Blangiardi says the enforcements don’t work.
“Just pushing people around does not decrease the number of homeless,” he said. “It merely moves homeless individuals from park to park, street to street.”
Blangiardi says he expects to meet with experts in the coming weeks to work on a comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness in Hawaii.
“I believe it is scalable,” he says.
I also believe reducing homelessness on Oahu is scalable but not without the strategic use of sweeps.
The city prefers to use the term “enforcement actions” rather than “sweeps” to emphasize it is enforcing the law by halting illegal behavior such as sleeping all night in parks or in tents blocking the sidewalks — activities that are forbidden to the rest of us.
Sweeps help break up homeless camps that are growing out of control, they alert police about criminal activity and they remove tons of trash and feces that pile up in encampments without restroom facilities or regular garbage pickups.
Sweeps are not the answer by themselves but they help to confront the overall challenge of homelessness.
Longtime homeless services provider Connie Mitchell calls enforcements one of many tools needed to address homelessness. She is the executive director of the Institute for Human Services, Hawaii’s oldest and largest homeless services provider.
She sees the need for sweeps when large entrenched encampments are blocking sidewalks. Campers intimidate passersby, preventing them from walking through and making it difficult for businesses in areas to attract customers.
Enforcement is also needed when adults in encampments are putting their children in danger.
Before the sweep that cleared out a large encampment at Kapalama Canal in 2015, Mitchell says she worried about unsupervised children falling into the canal and drowning.
“Parents were in their tents doing drugs, not paying attention to their kids,” she said.
Mitchell says the city’s efforts to break up camps as well as police enforcement are needed when an encampment is used as a cover-up for illegal activities such as drug dealing and sex trafficking of minors.
“There have been people stabbed in homeless camps, women raped,” says Mitchell.
She says you just can’t make a blanket statement about enforcements being useless.
“It takes patience to find out what will work for a particular homeless individual. Any plan to address homelessness has to include a lot of different tools including enforcements. Sometimes in enforcements care providers are able to reach people who are tired of being shuffled around,” says Mitchell.
Homeless care providers are always present at any enforcement to offer homeless campers shelter and services, which they sometimes accept.
Picking Up Trash And Debris
Sweeps also serve the purpose of clearing out tons of trash, debris and human excrement that build up when homeless camps are allowed to fester unchallenged for too long.
Consider the massive homeless encampments that expanded over months on both city and state land including the Old Stadium Park, under the airport viaduct on Nimitz Highway, Sand Island Recreation Area, Diamond Head Cliffs and Kakaako.
Also on the Waianae Coast, where the city conducted separate sweeps in October 2019 and again last month on two different half-mile stretches north of Keaau Beach Park Campgrounds on the Waianae Coast.
During the two sweeps, 189 tons of debris were hauled out and dozens of abandoned vehicles removed to restore a mile long stretch of the rural shoreline.
The city says during the two Keaau homeless enforcements “several individuals accepted outreach services and temporary shelter.”
Brandi Higa, a spokeswoman with Caldwell’s office, says since the beginning of his administration in 2013 to date the city has removed 7 million pounds of trash and debris from homeless encampments on sidewalks, streets and other places under city jurisdiction on Oahu, along with 21,000 shopping carts and 4,862 cubic yards of metal for recycling.
She says without repeated enforcement of city ordinances, encampments would grow out of bounds like the massive camp in Kakaako did in 2015, affecting residents, tourists and businesses.
Higa says that especially during the pandemic, enforcements are necessary to protect all people, including homeless individuals, by making sure they have sanitary living conditions and that residents and businesses have access to clean public facilities including restrooms, parks, streets and sidewalks.
The city has two special crews to conduct the homeless trash cleanups.
The state does similar homeless camp sweeps working with Department of Transportation crews, which go out five days a week to remove trash left by illegal campers — who are given 48-hour warnings of upcoming enforcements so they can pick up their stuff and leave.
Both the city and state also store property that homeless campers leave, with the illegal campers given up to 30 days to reclaim it.
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige points out that enforcements are not planned with the key purpose of ending homelessness but they are considered necessary to manage public health and safety on government lands.
Last year in the state’s sweeps, 5,081 tons of garbage and debris were removed from homeless camps across the islands.
“The issue of the enforcements is always very controversial,” Morishige says. “It has to be a balancing act of managing state property yet at the same time, continuously offering evicted campers help which can take many visits for them to embrace.”
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources says it conducts enforcements after hearing from residents concerned about their safety, especially at places like Sand Island Recreation Area and Diamond Head, where homeless campers have used both the mauka and makai slopes of the volcanic crater for decades.
“Enforcement doesn’t stop people from taking up living on public lands, but without it homeless camps would continue to grow in places like Diamond Head State Monument and at Sand Island,” DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison says.
Former Institute for Human Services spokesman Kimo Carvalho points out that no one is ever supposed to be living on Diamond Head.
“I personally think there should be repeated sweeps on places like Diamond Head, where there is no trespassing allowed for anyone, homeless or non-homeless, ever, ” Carvalho says.
Carvalho says he admires Blangiardi for taking a long view about homelessness and especially for focusing on the chronic homeless.
He thinks enforcements can be effective for the subset of chronic homeless who have embraced homelessness as a lifestyle and have no intention of giving it up, such as “people you see on Diamond Head Crater, panhandling in Waikiki and living in vans on the shoulders of Kapiolani Park.”
“Disruption is meant to disrupt their lives and they are pissed off when they are disrupted. Some do end up choosing other options rather than being repeatedly disrupted,” Carvalho says.
He says where sweeps are completely ineffective are in communities of severely mentally ill and drug-addicted campers, people unable to think clearly.
“They lack the capacity to understand why they are being asked to move. It accomplishes nothing,” Carvalho says.
Blangiardi says he hopes to offer more services to homeless and more places for homeless to stay.
In his “Roadmap to Recovery” campaign document, Blangiardi expresses support for programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which divert low-level offenders from getting cited or arrested and instead guide them to social services and housing options.
He also supports the Assisted Community Treatment program to help homeless people with severe mental illness get Family Court-ordered medical treatment.
He said on the phone he hopes to offer more details about his homelessness plan soon.
Even though many homeless service providers disagree with Blangiardi’s blanket rejection of sweeps, they agree with his eagerness to get helpless people off the streets.
“Any kind of shelter is better than being out on the streets,” says IHS’s Mitchell.
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