Homelessness in Waikiki

Many of Waikiki’s Homeless Are Mainland Snowbirds

Just as tourists trade the cold winters of Minneapolis, Seattle and other cities for the warmth of Waikiki, so do another group of visitors.

“There are homeless people who come here in the winter months, just as tourists who come here when the mainland weather is brutal,” says Colin Kippen, the state’s homelessness coordinator.

But these Waikiki snowbirds usually don’t return home and they comprise a large part of Waikiki’s homeless, say Kippen and others who serve the homeless in Waikiki.

“When you first come to Hawaii, Waikiki is where you go,” explains Michelle Ip, program supervisor for the Waikiki Health Center’s Care-A-Van, a homeless outreach program. “It’s a tourist destination. There’s always something going on so it’s a little more safe. A lot of them don’t stay in Waikiki once they become familiar with the island. They’ll move to a different neighborhood, but new transients arrive, so the numbers remain steady.”

Ip hears as many different stories as there are homeless people. Sometimes, they say their families sent them here or they were homeless on the mainland until cold weather persuaded them to leave.

“They may have sold a few belongings for a one-way ticket or saved up their Social Security earnings. Some have told me they had never been to Hawaii but researched places that offer good social services and ended up here,” she says.

Ip knows where Waikiki’s homeless dwell.

“During the day, they can be found at Kuhio Avenue bus stops, at Kalakaua’s pavilions or along its sidewalks, or at the Waikiki Aquarium, Kapiolani Park and Paki Park,” she says. “When Kapiolani Park closes at midnight, you’ll see them leaving the park and heading to the mauka side of Kalakaua Avenue. The same pilgrimage happens at 2 a.m. when the pavilions on the makai side close.”

Ip refers to what is perhaps one of Hawaii’s most bizarre rituals. Each night at midnight, like clockwork, homeless people trek from Kapiolani Park to the mauka side of Kalakaua Avenue to set up makeshift beds on the sidewalk. A similar pilgrimage occurs at 2 a.m. when the beaches and pavilions close and more homeless converge onto Kalakaua Avenue’s mauka sidewalks until the park and beaches open again at 5 a.m. You can tell a new transient because that person is the only one left on the beach. But they only do it once because the police roust them the first time.

It’s not clear how many homeless there are in Waikiki. A city count on a single day in 2013 found 263 unsheltered homeless people in East Oahu, which runs from Ala Moana Beach Park to Makapuu and includes Waikiki. The 2013 Homeless Service Utilization Report by the UH-Manoa Center on the Family did not have a count for any particular neighborhood, but said 9,525 homeless people used social services on Oahu in 2013.

Along with the mainland transients, the homeless in Waikiki include chronically homeless people who were born and raised in Hawaii or came from the mainland many years ago. Often these people have a drug addiction, mental illness or disability – which makes them the most visible on the streets.

“We get so many complaints from visitors,” says George Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association. “We’ve had visitors come up to our GMs and tell them how they’ve been coming to Hawaii for 15 years but they’re not coming back anymore because of the homeless.”

The state and the city have programs to address the problem, Kippen says, adding that the best approach is to house people as quickly as possible. “We want to substantially reduce the numbers of homeless, but the causes of homelessness don’t go away just because we get them off the street,” he says. “People will still fall on hard times. But we are creating a systematic way for all service providers to do intake, assessment and referral.”

Kippen says the City and County of Honolulu is investing $7 million in a program called Housing First, considered a national best practice that gets people off the street faster. Many homeless people don’t go to shelters because they prohibit drugs and alcohol. Housing First offers a homeless person an apartment with no restrictions on drugs and alcohol. Once they are in stable housing, social workers can address their substance abuse and mental health. Kippen says the model has succeeded in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities.

Tourism leaders and hotel owners welcome these efforts, Szigeti says, but he emphasizes the urgency of the situation. “I was walking to a meeting at eight in the morning the other day and I saw a guy sleeping in the little cubby hole of the Burberry store. He was half-naked, had just defecated as you could see it and visitors were taking pictures of him,” he says. “You have to remain compassionate, but you can’t ignore there’s a problem.”

Szigeti says hotel managers have had to find their own solutions to prevent the homeless from hurting their businesses.

“When you find them on the third floor in your banquet line, getting aggressive with visitors, something has to be done,” he says. “Hotels have been very lenient in the past, but now they’re realizing they need to be tougher. If you don’t cite them for trespassing or make them feel uncomfortable, these things will happen.”

Many hotels have beefed up security and banned the outside public from restrooms. Instead of watering lawns during the day, some hotels set their sprinklers to go on at 3 a.m. to stop people from sleeping on the grass.

John DeMello, who has been patrolling District 6 Waikiki for all of his 10 years with the Honolulu Police Department, says homelessness is one of the area’s biggest problems.

“But it is a socioeconomic matter. We understand homeless people commit crimes and we address it like everyone else who commits a crime. But it is not a crime to be homeless,” says DeMello. “We review complaints but if there is no crime committed, we can’t just move people.”

The city’s Bill 7, passed in April, bans any item deemed a “sidewalk nuisance.” That includes “any object or collection of objects constructed, erected, installed, maintained, kept or operated on or over any sidewalk, including but not limited to stalls, stands, tents, furniture, and containers, and of their contents or attachments.”

So tents can be cleared from sidewalks, but not people. Those sleeping along the mauka side of Kalakaua from midnight until 5 a.m. are not disturbed because they have no tents and their belongings do not make the sidewalk impassable.

“We need to find a balance of being tolerant and respecting the humanitarian side, but also respecting those parks and pavilions as belonging to everyone,” Szigeti says. “We don’t want it to be a visitor-industry issue, because it’s a global issue. But we want to be part of the fix.”

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Jan 7, 2014 05:02 am
 Posted by  65Corvair

We've been coming to Waikiki since 1995. Not this year. Last year was the first time I didn't feel safe going back to my hotel, which the price had gone up 50% in one year. If you are middle class, it is no longer a good deal and the place sucks more every year. It used to be cheap and clean. Not any more. Hope you can fix your problems, I won't be around to see it. And the actual beach isn't very nice either. My $7,000 will be spent elsewhere. I will miss Waikiki.

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Jan 18, 2014 07:21 pm
 Posted by  bettyheycke@yahoo.com

What can I do?! Every day as I walk down the Ala Wai I see homeless occupying every bench. At Kalakaua and Ala Wai there is a homeless encampment which grows every day.
I asked a policeman about this encampment. He said "homelessness in not a crime--nothing we can do. "
Yet they have removed tents from the area near the old Hard Rock Cafe. Can homeless camp out anywhere?
What is the law? What can we do?
Betty heycke

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Feb 26, 2014 04:41 pm
 Posted by  garden

I have been pushed today by homeless man on the crossing from Mac Donald restaurant on Kalakaua ave. He pushed me with his backpack into my face - I was lucky I didn't fall. He cursed and walked away. I was shaken, went to complain to the police station, but know nothing will be done. I'm now rethinking if I'll come back next year. I know I wont feel safe anymore here. City needs to do something - not just talk. Tourists bringing tons of money, so they deserve to be safe here!

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Feb 27, 2014 01:59 am
 Posted by  davjb

We came to Oahu for the first time in 2013 as a trip of a lifetime for us and a long way to travel with us coming from the UK. We stayed in Waikiki. We felt the amount of homeless people who were on the sidewalk and under the shelters was very intimidating as they were shouting out at peopl. The beach was full of families with young children. this was. You would have thought with them being that close to the police station they would have been moved on.I dont dont we will return to Waikiki.

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Apr 21, 2014 07:22 pm
 Posted by  My2cntzwrth

We have been coming here for 20 years and have never seen it so bad. The stench of these miscreants has finally taken it's toll on our family and friends and we will not be coming back here again. We were owners of a time share in Waikiki which we dumped 3 years ago when we saw what was happening here. Remember Hawaii, TOURISTS ARE ENDANGERED SPECIES! When we are gone... we will NEVER return. YOU will live in the squalor YOU created with homeless bums you love so much if you don't do something!

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May 19, 2014 12:58 pm
 Posted by  Localboy96815

Aloha I am one of the Homeless that live here in Waikiki! I do not yell, scream or steal. Most of the homeless here in Waikiki are not from Hawaii. They are comeing from the mainland with oneway tickets! These are the one's that are not respecting our islands! Useing the bathroom in doorways on the beach! Sleeping everywere!!! Maybe people that are coming too Hawaii on vacation can take them back too the
mainland. The reason I live out here is simple cost too-rent a place is out of reach for me

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May 19, 2014 01:07 pm
 Posted by  Localboy96815

As far as the police. They are two-face. What officer John DeMello said is a joke!! The city is saying onething and doing another. The police have harassed, stolen, and beat down the homless! Before we could sleep on the beach out of site. We use too sleep early and get up early before an vistors come! Now they push us to the side walk now they are (the Police) are telling us we are not allowed in Waikiki from 12am-5am!!.
Most of you are says thats not true will come see for yourself! Anynight!

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May 19, 2014 01:07 pm
 Posted by  Localboy96815

As far as the police. They are two-face. What officer John DeMello said is a joke!! The city is saying onething and doing another. The police have harassed, stolen, and beat down the homless! Before we could sleep on the beach out of site. We use too sleep early and get up early before an vistors come! Now they push us to the side walk now they are (the Police) are telling us we are not allowed in Waikiki from 12am-5am!!.
Most of you are says thats not true will come see for yourself! Anynight!

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May 26, 2014 07:00 am
 Posted by  Suzanne

The city should get the word out that most of the homeless here are not dangerous nor bothersome. We live downtown and they rarely even ask for money, let alone bother us in any other way. We don't have much crime in Hawaii. Seeing a lot of homeless in other cities means it's dangerous, but not here. They should let people know that so they feel safer.

To the person who said they were pushed and knew the police would do nothing - that is assault & they can arrest him.

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May 26, 2014 07:03 am
 Posted by  Suzanne

They should do here what they do in Atlanta. They have these meters set up around the city. If you want to donate to the homeless, you put money in the meters. That money goes directly to the shelters so you know it's going to help people with shelter and food, not drugs and liquor. There are signs on it to tell people not to give money to the homeless.

Lots of other cities have found ways to push the homeless out of the tourist or downtown areas - Honolulu needs to do the same.

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