Houseless at Kona Aquatics Center dreading Wednesday’s Hawaiʻi County sweep
June 6, 2023, 7:55 PM HST
* Updated June 7, 9:10 AM
There was uneasiness among at least a dozen houseless adults who were camped in front of Hawaiʻi County’s Kona Aquatics Center on Tuesday as they awaited their inevitable so-called eviction the next day.
Hawai’i County said it will go through with its planned enforcement operation on Wednesday of the public space’s rules, which in reality means it is kicking out the people living on the property.
“If it looks like a sweep and acts like a sweep, it’s a sweep,” said Kristen Alice with Hope Services, a nonprofit that assists individuals with finding housing.
The Wednesday enforcement operation is despite a letter sent by the ACLU of Hawai’i to the county demanding such sweeps stop until the people in the encampments have either a shelter or safe place to go.
This operation also comes two weeks after Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth initiated the large-scale sweep at Hale Hālāwai Beach Park to remove “unsafe and unhealthy” homeless encampments, which prompted the ACLU of Hawai’i letter that claimed there were “zero” available shelter space available in Kona on that day (May 24).
While the battle waged between the ACLU of Hawai’i and the county, the houseless people at the aquatics center sought shelter from the beating sun under coconut trees, tents and umbrellas in a grassy area next to the centerʻs parking lot. A smattering of tents also was on the other side of a stone wall, on a narrow patch of grass along the busy Kuakini Highway.
For some, the idea of leaving the hillside in the safety of the well-lit parking lot is frightening. They also were overwhelmed about having to once again find a place to live.
“They’re kicking us out with no place to go,” said Levy Silva, who has been living with his girlfriend at the makeshift encampment at Kona Aquatics Park since December.
Silva, covered in cuts and scratches from head to toe, sat on the walkway under the shade of the concrete building. Wearing no shirt or shoes, he had a green shirt wrapped around his left hand, which he used to wipe away tears.
“Living on the streets sucks,” he said. “Sleeping on the sidewalk, anything can happen. One time, I got ran over by a truck.”
But at least living in this parking lot, he said he feels safe, explaining it is well-lit, has bathrooms and regular visits from county workers.
Silva’s girlfriend, Darciea Hilderbrand, was standing at their camp on the grass next to the entrance of the aquatics center. With a tent set up for shade, it was connected to luggage and a full shopping cart, with a broken stove. A tan blanket covered in grass was tied up as siding. Inside the shelter was their sleeping 6-month-old puppy Mana.
“I understand the community doesn’t want us here, but it’s safer than being on the streets,” Hilderbrand said.
They are visible to the people, including children, who go to the Hawaiʻi County facility to swim, dive and play basketball.
“Being homeless isn’t a crime,” Hilderbrand said. “Why not just help each other?”
Hilderbrand and Silva found themselves homeless when they got kicked out of the place they were living because it was crammed with too many people. In her 30s or 40s, Hilderbrand is unemployed.
“They can’t tell us where to go because they don’t know where to put us,” Hilderbrand said.
Hilderbrand and Silva said they don’t plan to pack up their stuff, which includes the luggage, bins, backpacks, shopping cart, blankets, bedding, a little amount of food, a half-empty gallon jug of water and Mana. They will stay at the aquatics center as long as they can.
Hope Services has been sending people out to the Aquatics Center to let people know about the upcoming operation. They also provide a list of potential housing rentals, but many times the rent is still too expensive.
Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna and co-chair of Community Alliance Partners, said all the homeless shelters islandwide are at capacity.
Alice said there is only one bed open at an emergency shelter in Hilo.
“There’s not much you can do when you get into a crisis situation like this,” Normann said. “Nobody wants folks to be experiencing homelessness.”
Normann, who was quoted in the ACLU of Hawai’i letter sent to the county, said these enforcement operations aren’t solving anything and is only forcing people to relocate. He added it’s more likely re-traumatizing the individuals and will make it harder for law enforcement to interact with them in the future.
Alice said there are temporary options the county could do to help those experiencing homelessness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the county worked with hotels to ensure rooms were available on a temporary basis.
Alice said the county also used micro-units, located at the NAS Pool in Hilo, to help house people at that time as well. To her knowledge, Alice said those micro-units are not being used.
A woman sitting on a blue tarp was smoking a cigarette with a friend under a coconut tree. She had Tuesday’s copy of a newspaper on her lap with the front page story leading with: “ACLU: Stop homeless Sweeps.”
Known as Miller Miller, the Kona woman used to be homeless, but hasn’t been since February. She now regularly visits those still on the streets who she refers to as her extended family. She was at the aquatics center encampment on Tuesday to provide some comfort regarding their impending eviction.
During her time on the streets, Miller has been kicked out of county parks twice when police came to enforce park rules. A lot of times, Miller said officers show up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. shining a flashlight in their faces informing them they have to leave.
Many times, Miller said she tried to pack everything up before they came, but out of exhaustion she often would fall asleep.
Miller said so many people in the community think those who are homeless are alcoholics or drug addicts.
“A bunch of us just fell down in our lives and we’re just trying to pick ourselves up,” she said.
Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina said the actions planned on Wednesday are not targeted toward the homeless but to anyone violating county regulations. They are also addressing those who are coming to the park after dark, those using drugs in parks and those who have animals off leashes.
Messina said caretakers at the aquatic center are regularly dealing with needles in toilets, drug paraphernalia and dog feces.
“Our workers are out there with their heads on a swivel,” Messina said, adding they feel unsafe.