Board Talk: DLNR Steps Up Efforts to Manage Homelessness Across Public Lands

posted in: Board Talk, DLNR, November 2020 | 0

For the last five years, the state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) has basically had to ignore its normal duties of protecting and helping manage Hawai‘i’s natural resources.

“Homelessness has taken away from all that,” DOCARE officer Gerard Villalobos told the Board of Land and Natural Resources at an October 23 briefing.

DOCARE, the enforcement arm of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, has been spending more and more time dealing with the homeless on state lands, and Villalobos expects things to worsen with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I don’t see any end in sight, really, because it just seems to have gotten worse,” especially on O‘ahu, he said.

DOCARE is not the only DLNR division grappling with increased homelessness. During the briefing, organized by agency homeless coordinator Pua Aiu, representatives from the Land Division, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR), the Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW), and the Division of State Parks detailed the challenges each of them are facing.

Some examples:

•The Land Division was cited by the state Department of Health for a wastewater violation stemming from an unauthorized village for the homeless that was hastily erected earlier this year on a vacant lot in Waimanalo by a local non-profit.

• Homeless people have begun to live in vacant boats at the state’s small boat harbors.

•Firefighters with DOFAW have encountered toxic fumes as fires pass through abandoned homeless camps.

And then there’s the trash.

“State Parks has spent thirty to forty thousand dollars on contractors and roll- offs removing I can’t even count the tons of rubbish from Diamond Head StateMonument. … You’d be amazed at the amount of rubbish people can pull up [the crater],” said State Parks administrator Curt Cottrell. “In addition to couches and tents, there’s a water heater. Not hooked up to anything, but it’s rubbish we have to pay the contractors to pull out,” he said.

According to Na Ala Hele program manager Mike Millay, DOFAW staff has taken to cleaning camps left by the homeless. “The trash remnants left behind is horrendous and very time consuming to go pick that up when we’re already stretched super thin on our capacity as is. They don’t know if there’s endemic species or endangered birds or species that they’re clearing their camp with. They could be decimating where [the animals or plants] live. There’s a lot of potential damage to cultural resources,” he said.

DOBOR administrator Ed Underwood said that because of the large amounts of trash being left at the harbors, there is a water pollution concern. Aiu added that boats filled with trash are often found in the water.

Aiu said the DLNR has been able to partner with the state Department of Transportation on removing all of the junk. Accompanied by DOCARE officers, DOT contractor HTM “hauls off all of our big trash,” she said. “It would be difficult to almost impossible without the HTM funding. We had to go from August to now without HTM funding. We’re almost paralyzed. It’s so hard to do the cleanups without them. We don’t have enough staff or money,” she added.

Seeking Solutions

Aiu said that DOCARE has stepped up training of its officers on laws regarding the homeless and on how to recognize and handle people with mental health issues. With adequate MH-1 training on mental health issues, DOCARE officers will have the authority to require a person to undergo an involuntary 48-hour psychiatric evaluation, Aiu said, adding, “That will be really exciting to not have to rely on HPD [Honolulu police] to address those issues with us.” (MH-1 is an Involuntary Application for Mental Health Evaluation.)

With regard to finding places for the homeless to go, the Legislature passed Act 212 in 2017, establishing a working group to identify state lands that could be used as temporary encampments. So far, the DLNR has not been able to find many lands suitable for shelters or other types of homeless housing.

“Most properties need to be flat and non-flood prone, have existing infrastructure and public transportation. We don’t have any. We’re looking at less-useful lands that require more mitigation, which is expensive,” Aiu said.

She pointed out that the DLNR has already provided more than 70 acres over the years and across the state for homeless housing projects. The lands have been set aside or leased to various counties or to the Hawai‘i Housing Finance and Development Corporation (an agency of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) or other social service agency, according to Land Division administrator Russell Tsuji.

Some of the homeless housing projects on land under the jurisdiction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Credit: Pua Aiu

In the case of the village for the homeless in Waimanalo, however, his division is struggling to resolve the problems surrounding its creation. Many view the village — spawned by Blanche and Willie McMillan of the non-profit Hui Mahi‘ai ‘Aina, YouthBuild Waimanalo, and others —as a blessing.

“A place to call HOME is a priceless and beautiful thing,” wrote Anei Kennison Hiona in her June 23 testimony to the House Committee on Housing in support of Senate Bill 2206. The bill would have allowed the Land Board to grant month-to-month permits for temporary emergency shelters and facilities for homeless people on state lands.

Although the bill did not specifically refer to the state parcel in Waimanalo where the Hui built housing for homeless, it seemed tailored to address the fact that the homes were built without any authorization from the state.

Hiona, who lives in one of the houses with her husband and eight-year-old daughter, stated, “I have had to move 12 times since my child was born! I cherish the opportunity to never be uprooted again. Everyday I wake up I know that we will always have food, shelter, family and friends around. I thank God daily for giving us auntie Blanche and her wonderful, caring family.”

In addition to several residents of the village, the Hawai‘i Kai Homeless Task Force and the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i testified in support of the bill.

“While these kinds of camps are not the most ideal, given the challenges posed by COVID-19, innovative, short-term solutions need to be implemented to address the housing shortage. This measure would help BLNR to implement a short-term solution,” wrote Hawaiian Affairs Caucus chair Juanita Brown Kawamoto.

While the bill would have required any permittees to indemnify the state, Land Board chair and DLNR director Suzanne Case testified that her department was “concerned about the actual effectiveness of this indemnity should the state need to invoke it.”

Although the Legislature passed the bill, Gov. David Ige vetoed it.

Had Ige signed the bill, the DLNR would still have to deal with the fact that the village is in a flood zone. “These structures do not comply with the flood plan or federal requirements, placing residents potentially at risk if it was to flood, as well as, potentially, the community on abutting DHHL [Department of Hawaiian Home Lands] homestead land. We got complaints from some in the area because of flooding in the general area,” Tsuji told the board.

In addition to the potential wastewater violation, he said the homes have not been subject to any environmental review. The Health Department wants the wastewater violation resolved and “we have informed the leader of this encampment of the DOH violation and we have been told they are trying to resolve it,” he said.

The flooding issue is still a big problem, he added. “From what we’re told by the Engineering Division, if we don’t correct this problem, it could have a larger impact for the state’s flood insurance program, so we’re taking this pretty seriously,” he said.

“It’s very likely at some point we would probably be before the board and try to resolve this,” he said.

‘Half-In, Half-Out’

Providing solutions for people who want to get into houses addresses only part of the problem, according to Case. “There are certain groups that are more hard-core criminals. They don’t necessarily want a solution here because they’ve got other priorities in terms of crime and drugs,” she said.

Villalobos and Cottrell concurred.

“These are humans that prefer the lifestyle of camping illegally in our wild land areas and adjacent urban interfaces. The conversations I’ve had with them is, they want this versus the rules of inhabiting a shelter,” Cottrell said.

With a drone, he said, his division was able to map 38 homeless sites in the rugged terrain at Diamond Head.

Aiu said some possible solutions could be to close certain hotspots, such as Kapena Falls State Park on O‘ahu, or to privatize the small boat harbors. Both would require approval from the Land Board.

“What we find is our areas are really popular because we have restroom facilities and we have water. It makes it very easy for people to set up camp. … At the Wai‘anae small boat harbor, our water bill alone was exceeding revenues generated in the harbor at one point,” DOBOR’s Underwood said.

To prevent homeless encroachment in the state’s more remote, “underused” areas, Aiu suggested that the department could try to encourage more public use through things such as urban forestry. That might also require board approval, she noted.

Board member Chris Yuen said he had concerns about any request to the board to authorize an encampment.

“Strictly on an enforcement level, I don’t see why something has to come to the board. If someone is camping on State Parks who’s not supposed to, you cite them. If someone is on unencumbered land, cite them. Don’t bring it to the board. Just enforce,” he said.

Cottrell clarified that his division, at least, might bring to the board “some creative dispositions of land where there is an entrenched camp [with] the ultimate effect of trying to remove the population.”

With regard to the effect of citations, Cottrell pointed out earlier in the meeting, “There is no threat legally to these individuals. We’ve created, because of litigation and court cases and precedents, a new class of people that are virtually, at this point in time, immune to any civil process that would break the cycle of their return.

“Gerry’s written countless citations to guys on Diamond Head. There are bench warrants for failure to appear. But one of the big problems is having our state law enforcement interface with county law enforcement. If someone is houseless, there is a very rigorous procedure to get them incarcerated. The counties and state law enforcement really need to work closer together in trying to essentially optimize how we deal with this.

“We know there are social pressures and protections in place, but absent any penalties, in the COVID economy, I anticipate we will be dealing with this situation in greater numbers over the next couple years,” he said.

Yuen conceded, “It may be at some point we have to accept this as a new reality and set up semi-permanent camp sites, instead of this random whack-a-mole situation. Set up a field, bathrooms, running water, storage lockers … and you tell everybody ‘This is where you go.’”

Aiu said that is similar to the POST camp that the Honolulu Police Department has set up on DLNR land. Homeless people can even take their dogs there, she pointed out. But for some, there are still too many rules there, she said.

“I’ll take you up to Diamond Head. If you were homeless, that’s where you would want to live, honestly,” she said.

“Nobody wants our State Parks to be designated in this fashion. … This sort of half-in, half-out living style, there’s no perfect place for that. It does tend to materialize in very opportunistic places,” Case said.

Aiu noted that the racial mix of homeless on DLNR land mirrors the state’s, where 35 percent is native Hawaiian.

Board member Kaiwi Yoon asked whether any native Hawaiian organizations have helped the agency’s efforts.

“It’s a really difficult issue,” she replied. She said the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is not really organized to deal with these kinds of issues, and the DHHL has homeless on its own lands.

“Because of rules for DHHL, they cannot provide us with housing for homeless. That would mean people on the waiting list would get jumped over,” she said.

“It’s a big issue for us. It’s ongoing. It’s an expensive issue, a complicated issue. … It’s getting worse in a COVID situation and COVID economy,” Case said.

Board member Vernon Char admitted he was naive about how extensively the homeless issue affected the DLNR’s lands.

“It cuts across all divisions. … Whether we like it or not, we’re a big player in this thing,” he said. In addition to needing more funds from the Legislature, he said, the Land Board or the department should continue efforts to “pull things together and see if we can be of some assistance.”

Case praised Aiu for her work in that regard. “She really stepped up for DLNR as our coordinator when this problem began to get bigger and bigger. She works very closely with all of the divisions, with Scott Morishige [the governor’s coordinator on homelessness], with HPD. It’s not your typical job in natural and cultural resource protection. She did really step up and the fact that we have a coordinated effort on this is pretty new and we appreciate it very much.”

— Teresa Dawson

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