Hawaiʻi County conducts houseless sweep at Kona Aquatics Center; 13 people receive help
June 7, 2023, 6:19 PM HST
* Updated June 7, 6:20 PM
Hawaiʻi County conducted its planned “park rules enforcement effort” on Wednesday at Kona Aquatics Center despite a June 2 letter from the ACLU of Hawaiʻi demanding the homeless sweeps stop until enough shelters and safe spaces are available for those in need.
“We are not embarking on malicious sweeps,” Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth said in a county press release. “We are upholding the law while providing vital services and resources to enhance the quality of life for those affected by it.”
During the operation, 17 people who were living in encampments in grassy areas by the parking lot and along Kuakini Highway were forced to leave the county property.
The county said 13 of the 17 impacted people were provided vital services — including housing, airfare and relocation assistance — and the other four impacted people refused assistance. No one received citations.
Paul Normann, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Place of Puna and co-chair of Community Alliance Partners, provided a breakdown of the assistance provided.
He said the nonprofit Hope Services was able to move things around and provide four people with emergency shelter on Wednesday night. Two of those beds were reserved for veterans, but when no veterans showed up to use them they were given out.
Another individual found shelter through the nonprofit Care Hawai‘i.
Normann said eight of the individuals are still unsheltered and will be on the streets Wednesday night. At least six of them were couples and wouldn’t be separated.
Normann said it’s disingenuous for the county to say they are providing services. While they are contacting the organizations that help those experiencing homelessness, there’s no coordinated plan.
“This is a crisis the county is creating, and it displaces folks who are in line to get into a shelter,” Normann said.
The county did not immediately provide more information about the air fares and relocation assistance that was being provided.
Normann said the service providers for those without homes do not support these sweeps when there’s insufficient emergency housing.
The day before the sweep, several people living in tents on the property were worried because they had nowhere to go.
Roth said: “Todayʻs park rules enforcement effort at the Kona Community Aquatic Center reflects our unwavering commitment to safety, compassion, and the well-being of our community.”
He added: “We are upholding the law while providing vital services and resources to enhance the quality of life for those affected by it. By working together with dignity and aloha, we are building a future where our public spaces are safe, clean and inclusive for everyone.”
To ensure the proper handling of all personal property, the county arranged for a secure storage facility. The 21 bags of personal belongings from three individuals were carefully stored and inventoried, allowing individuals to easily retrieve their belongings within a 30-day period.
Two truckloads of miscellaneous trash were also recovered and disposed of.
Similarly to the Hale Hālāwai Parks’ Enforcement Operation, outreach specialists from service provider organizations had been actively engaging with individuals in the area prior to the enforcement effort to provide support and connect them with appropriate resources, the county said.
With Wednesday’s operation, all safety and rule violations within the Kona Community Aquatic Center have been addressed.
“Mayor Roth’s focus is now on restoring the intended purpose of the park, creating a safe and enjoyable environment for all residents and visitors,” the county said.
The County said future enforcement efforts are planned to address issues at parks around the island as part of an ongoing initiative to ensure the safety, cleanliness and functionality of public spaces.
The sweep at the aquatics center was conducted by the Hawaiʻi County Department of Parks and Recreation, in coordination with the Hawaiʻi Police Department, the Office of Housing and Community Development and nongovernment service providers.
Wednesday’s operation comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai’i sent the letter in reaction to the homeless sweep on May 24 at Hale Hālāwai Beach Park. The letter said it violated the people’s constitutional rights.
The county responded on June 6 with a letter of its own, defending the operation and saying it is committed to a “balanced approach that considers the well-being of both the homeless population and the general public.”
The county’s letter defending its May 24 “large-scale enforcement operation” that it conducted in the early morning hours at the park along touristy Aliʻi Drive in Kona.
Normann said there is a better way to address these encampments. If the county is “feeling the pressure to enforce park rules,” it should “come up with a plan to be compassionate and coordinate with the service providers.”