KAILUA-KONA — Emily DuPlessis pushed her child’s stroller down the path from their rented condo to the beach, her two other young children in tow, before nearly tripping over a homeless man stretched out perpendicularly across the pavement.
Politely, she asked him to move. Impolitely, he asked of her compensation for the trouble. She declined. Laying back down, he declined as well.
“Your downtown district is saturated with transient people who are unsettlingly confident,” the Washington-based educator wrote of Kona in a December letter to the editor emailed to West Hawaii Today. “They stroll the streets high on drugs and distract tourists for money and attention. … This is not a family vacation environment.”
DuPlessis cited the aggressive and unsavory behavior she encountered from area homeless as the sole reason she felt concern for her family’s safety and as the catalyst behind a firm choice never to return.
WHT published the letter to vociferous response. Some took umbrage, defending their hometown or a place they’d enjoyed a pleasurable getaway.
However, the majority of commenters took up her lament regarding the deterioration of the village due to general homeless presence, particularly in the areas of Alii Drive, Kuakini Highway and the Old Kona Industrial Area.
Yet a disconnect exists here at the intersection between the anecdotal and statistical.
The seemingly overwhelming public sentiment that homeless behavior is growing more brazen and disruptive in Kona is at odds with numbers produced by county and state surveys over the last two years.
State Point-In-Time Count tallies, which are conducted by volunteers, self-reported by the homeless and not regarded by any authority as entirely accurate, have nevertheless registered a nearly 38 percent drop in the homeless population across Hawaii County between the years 2016-2018.
Regardless of flaws, no margin of error could span such a statistical chasm. And every PIT Count prior was conducted in the same fashion, with the same flaws. The homeless population has decreased. It is a certainty.
Yet residents and visitors alike who spoke to the paper agreed unanimously that homeless presence is felt across West Hawaii more strongly now than ever.
The relevant question — why?
A possible answer — most of the problems posed by the homeless population are caused by a handful of individuals, men and women uninterested in life off the streets, people whom no housing project or outreach program can entice.
Hawaii and Hawaii County have thrown time, personnel and financial resources at the issue, doing so at unprecedented rates over the last three years. And the results are there. Nearly a fifth of the state’s homeless have been housed since rock bottom. Newly re-elected Gov. David Ige stood on the issue Tuesday as he delivered his annual State of the State Address.
But what is to be done about those who refuse help, many of whom are the most disruptive and criminal, as well as the ones driving public perception that nothing about homelessness has improved when regarded against the day-to-day quality of life for locals and tourists?
No authority has yet found an answer. But there has been plenty of community reaction and reflection.
“I’m not proud of my town,” said Nakoa Pabre, owner of Umeke’s Fishmarket Bar and Grill, which is located on the corner of Kuakini Highway and Kaiwi Street. “I want to be. We’ve got to come together as a community and step up and take our town back.”
Part of the disconnect may involve an order handed down by Mayor Harry Kim in the summer of 2017, in which he mandated all illegally squatting residents of Old Airport Park be removed and relocated.
That year, the PIT Count documented953 homeless across the island, down from an all-time high of 1,394 in 2016. Several dozen West Hawaii homeless lived in tents or other handmade shelters across the area. Despite efforts to set up a temporary campsite known as Camp Kikaha in the Old Industrial Area and house as many as possible, there was spillover into the community.
Businesses noticed it then. And they continue to notice it now, as homeless yet congregate and camp illegally outside the HOPE Services Hawaii campus on Pawai Place — where Camp Kikaha was born and where it died several months ago.
“I believe the homeless presence has increased,” Pabre said. “They’re not respecting the land. They don’t give a (expletive). They treat this land like it’s their trashcan and it breaks my heart.”
Pabre, who plans to move Umeke’s to a site even closer to HOPE, picks up garbage out of his parking lot regularly. He witnesses homeless mainstays lighting up “ice,” also known as crystal methamphetamine, in broad daylight. One morning around 5 a.m., he arrived to work to find what he described as “prostitution” in motion on his front steps.
It wasn’t the first time.
Benjamin Vasquez, who visited the island from California, said a homeless man on Alii Drive began nonsensically berating his girlfriend Amanda when she told the man she had no cash to give him.
“If I hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened,” Vasquez said.
He added Amanda was visibly shaken for a few hours, though she calmed down later. They planned to spend most of their remaining time at points either north or south of Kona. Vasquez was unsure if they would ever return.
“Maybe,” he said. “I just don’t know, man.”
Stefanie Gubser, operations manager for Manini Holdings LLC, which owns 6 acres in the Old Industrial Area and is developing the site for Kona Brewing Company’s new facility, said the cost of property damage caused by homeless has already climbed into the thousands since she moved over to the job just a few months ago.
Homeless rip out irrigation systems, tear through electrical setups, cut fences, she said.
“I’m in it every day,” Gubser added. “It’s in my face every day.”
She’s not alone.
Joe Pereira, of Hawaii Island Lawns LLC, works properties throughout the zones of Kona popular with homeless. He said most vandalism originates in efforts to obtain power, water and to put out lights.
He’s seen homeless unscrew light bulbs or sling rocks if the light source is out of reach. He said they damage covers and locks on power outlets or break into locked recyclable containers like those at Keauhou Shopping Center and Kona Commons to retrieve $10-$15 in returnable materials.
“They’ll go and bust up an irrigation system to turn it on and take a shower,” Pereira said.
Bob Dixson, owner of the Dixson 76 Station on the corner of Kuakini Highway and Hualalai Road, believes as Pabre does that homeless presence has steadily increased — and not just over the last two years, but across the entirety of the nearly two decades he’s run his business there.
“I always need to pay special attention to (my public bathrooms) because they get soiled more than they should be,” he said. “I see signs of drug use. It’s not that uncommon for me to walk in there and see a syringe or whatever.”
And the filth spills out of the bathroom into the parking lot if Dixson isn’t there to police it.
“I’ve seen people defecating out there in the corner,” he said. “Eighteen years later, and I still see the same stuff.”
The parks themselves, particularly Old Airport Park, have not become exempt from homeless influence since Mayor Kim issued the enforcement mandate.
Maurice Messina, deputy director of Parks and Recreation in Hawaii County, said the homeless population is beginning again to swell in the brush surrounding the ball fields at Kona’s north end.
In an interview after her letter was published, DuPlessis noted when her family visited the beach at Old Airport to take photos, her daughter stepped in a pile of human excrement as homeless mulled about.
“She was crying,” DuPlessis recalled. “We cleaned up her shoes and we tried to calm her down.”
What impact incidents like the one DuPlessis described have had on tourism is difficult to say.
Visitor and spending numbers have dipped everywhere on the Big Island since Kilauea’s fury began in May and have yet to show signs of significant recovery as of December.
With no specific data tracking the correlation between incidents involving homelessness and lower visitor rates, it’s impossible to know definitively what kind of lasting impact the issue has imposed upon the state’s most lucrative industry.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority publishes statewide data via surveys included in its annual Visitor Satisfaction and Activity Report. The reports take time to compile and 2017’s was yet to be published when this story went to print.
But in 2016, the most recent year data was available, there were a percentage of those surveyed who said homelessness had a negative impact on their time in Hawaii.
That year, when homelessness was at its peak in Hawaii, a state with a higher per capita percentage of that population than any other, homeless presence resonated most significantly with visitors from the East Coast of the U.S. as 2.9 percent hailing from that region said it impacted their visits negatively.
Tourists from China and Korea didn’t mention issues with homeless at all, while 2.6 percent of Canadians, 1.8 percent of visitors from the West Coast of the U.S., 1.5 percent of visitors from Japan, 0.7 percent of visitors from Europe and 0.6 percent of visitors from Oceania noted problems with homeless that detracted from their experience.
HTA’s survey question was such that each person questioned could only respond with one answer. The title of the data sheet accessible via the HTA website is titled “One Experience that Posed a Negative Impact to Your Stay in Hawaii.”
Thus, there is a high probability that greater percentages of visitor populations experienced homelessness in Hawaii negatively than listed above. Those numbers instead represent the portions of tourists with whom homelessness was the most significant detractor from their stays.
For a long time prior to 2018, tourism numbers hit all-time records year after year, and were set to expand considerably again on Hawaii Island before the lava started flowing at Kilauea in May.
Every year since 2010, with the exception of 2017, homelessness numbers rose along with visitation and spending.
By themselves, those figures are not sufficient evidence to support the notion that homelessness hasn’t affected the tourism industry. Issues involving homeless could have discouraged return visits even while the popularity of tropical vacations and the successes of county and state tourism initiatives sent overall numbers soaring.
According to HTA’s 2016 report, visitors from these same geographical categories were asked how likely they would be to make a return visit to Hawaii inside of five years. Responses of “not likely at all” ranged between 1.1 percent (U.S. West and Korea) to 5.1 percent (Europe).
The two most important markets to Hawaii tourism, the U.S. overall and Japan, recorded 1.7 percent and 1.6 percent of “not likely at all” to return responses, respectively. No data was included on the reasons why those surveyed responded as they did.
Beyond what can be drawn from limited statistics, anecdotal evidence remains the only real gauge, however inexact, to measure the correlation between homeless presence and tourist satisfaction/likelihood of return.
Kirstin Kahaloa, former executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said in past interviews with West Hawaii Today that the chamber received several calls about homeless concerns from businesses and tourists alike during her time there in 2016 and 2017.
Wendy Laros, current executive director, said the chamber isn’t ready to go on record with public feedback it’s received in recent months but that homelessness is an issue on the chamber’s radar.
For several years, the Kailua Village Improvement District has listed homelessness as one of its top priorities.
Neither Pabre nor Dixson were amenable to the idea of relocating to escape the hardships of doing business alongside homeless neighbors.
“I’m not gonna move,” Pabre said. “Move them.”
Hawaii County is pushing forward with Village 9, which will be an emergency homeless site before transforming into a permanent, 15-acre location complete with social services and the capacity to house dozens, if not hundreds, of homeless.
The 5-acre emergency site may be ready for occupants as early as May, but incentivizing homeless to reside there may prove a precarious proposition. Village 9’s location off Kealakehe Parkway is several miles from the heart of Kona and reliable transportation back and forth may not be immediately available.
Even if the county can convince the lion’s share of its West Hawaii homeless individuals to reside up mauka, it may only reduce the number of bodies in the streets, not the seemingly aggressive and sometimes criminal behaviors that originate with a small segment of the population responsible for most of the trouble.
“I’d say we don’t deal with that many of them,” explained Sgt. Joseph Stender Jr., with the Hawaii Police Department’s Community Policing Division. “The total number compared to how many we actually interact with that are violating laws, the number is fairly small.”
Of that group, many are committing only petty crimes like trespassing, minor theft or public indecency. Various police spokespeople have said on several occasions that homeless often end up back on the streets after only a few nights inside a cell because of that.
Gubser said her experience in the Old Industrial Area mirrors Stender’s description of the scene there and in other area popular with homeless. Manini Holdings has taken names in attempts to track troublemakers, and Gubser believes it’s as few as 10-20 individuals behind essentially all the criminal activity perpetrated in and around Brewery Block.
The nature of the homeless she and Stender referred to, as well as their relatively small numbers and transient tendencies to move from place to place, also render precarious Dixson’s suggestion of more community outreach as a solution to intensifying aggressiveness.
“That portion of the population, a lot of them don’t really want the help that is out there,” Stender said.
In the same spirit of Pabre’s sentiment that the community needs to “rise up” against homeless misbehavior, Gubser explained that property managers across the Old Industrial Area are banding together in what she called the Pawai Place Security Hui to share information. They also plan to hire the same security firm to consolidate efforts toward controlling the population.
Asked if she felt homeless people had become more aggressive and brazen over recent months and years, a homeless woman named Roni who has lived on the island her entire life — though not all of it as a homeless person — said she didn’t believe that was the case.
“There’s always been a few rough,” Roni said. “People just starting to notice more.”
A homeless man, who asked to be identified only as Mike, sat near the edge of the seawall on Alii Drive early last week. He was asked if he’d be willing to relocate to Village 9 for the promise of permanent shelter if it meant he wouldn’t always have readily available transport to regular Kona hangouts.
“Depends,” he said, as he lay back on the wall. “But I don’t think so.”
When asked if his decision would be influenced by knowledge that the county planned to create a drug treatment center on site at the homeless camp, Mike responded with only a brief scoff of laughter.
A SPRAWLING PROBLEM
As of last week, there were 664 single individuals in Hawaii County registered in the Homeless Management Information System, according to numbers provided by Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services. Only 113 of them had expressed interest in permanent housing to that point.
The rest need to be somewhere. When the county took away Old Airport Park and intensified early morning beach sweeps, the homeless ranks at established camps like the one above the intersection of Palani Road and Queen Kaahumanu Highway near the Kailua Fire Station began to grow.
Located on state land, the county has not been given clearance to evacuate and dismantle the camp.
Capt. Sean Sommers, who works for the Hawaii Fire Department at the Kailua Fire Station, said even a few of his men are uncomfortable with the swelling homeless presence just outside their door, not to mention the easy access into their place of business where firefighters frequently spend the night.
Perhaps nowhere has the brazen quality of homeless behavior been more glaring than in the examples Sommers, a county-employed authority figure, has encountered at his station.
“I was actually in my dorm room getting ready to go to sleep, and I noticed a reflection in the room,” he said. “I turned around and there was a (homeless) woman who’d just helped herself in. … Without an emergency, it’s basically the same thing as walking into someone’s house.”
It wasn’t the first time Sommers has been roused in the early morning hours to a homeless presence in the fire station. He said that while there have been reports of theft in the past, the homeless he’s encountered in the station are typically wandering around “out of it” either because of mental illness or drugs.
Sommers added that HFD does what it can to address the issues posed by the camp but budgetary restrictions leave solutions limited.
“The big city stuff is starting to come around,” Sommers said.
A lack of public funding and lack of willingness on the part of some homeless to cooperate have been central to a feeling among several residents, visitors and county officials that while stats indicate homeless numbers are on the decline, the day-to-day impact of homeless presence in West Hawaii may well be increasing in both frequency and aggressiveness.
Most of the problems often revolve around only a handful of instigators and recidivists within the population, but no one has yet figured out how to reach them.
In the meantime, aggression builds within their ranks as aggravation, exhaustion and despondence builds within the community — evident in the shocking stories told and disappointing conversations held.
“It’s not the same place,” Pabre said of his hometown. “My kids will never know what it used to be.”