Increase in homeless a challenge for police

KIHEI – With an increase in homeless people from the Mainland turning up on Maui this year, police say they are continuing efforts to clear makeshift campsites at beach parks and other areas.

“The biggest problem is we continue to get new faces,” said Paia community policing officer Taylor Kamakawiwo’ole. “The facilities and resources are not enough to handle our own homeless people.”

During a Maui Police Commission meeting Wednesday at the Kihei Police Station, Kamakawiwo’ole and fellow community policing officer Jan Pontanilla described recent operations to remove tents and campsites in the Kahului industrial area and at beach parks.

Responding to complaints, community policing officers worked with the Malama Maui Nui program to clear portions of the Kahului industrial area, including an accumulation of shopping carts, furniture and household goods at Wakea Avenue and Alamaha Street. The officers contacted people so they could remove their belongings before the area was cleared, Kamakawiwo’ole said.

He said similar enforcement was done at Waihee Beach Park, where 20 to 30 people had been staying at campsites as part of the Reinstated Hawaiian Government.

At Hoaloha Park in Kahului, officers are continuing to respond to complaints about vagrants sleeping in canoes and leaving messes, after a major cleanup of the area last year, Kamakawiwo’ole said. “We randomly set up operations, go through sweeping the area,” he said. “These little checks have made a difference.”

Another spot targeted by officers was at Baldwin Beach Park in the area from the Montana Beach house toward the Paia Youth & Cultural Center. Police worked with Paia community members, the county parks department and social service agencies.

“We’re noticing a lot of our homeless population deal with mental issues,” Kamakawiwo’ole said. “If they’re not connected with any services, we take the time to get them connected.”

He said officers also have worked with businesses on procedures for issuing trespassing notices and for making citizens’ arrests.

Since the beginning of the year, “we’ve been seeing a lot of new faces,” Kamakawiwo’ole said. He said many of the newcomers are from the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California and a few are from Idaho.

“Many of them choose to live outside the services,” he said. “They want to live the free life.”

To get by, some homeless recycle. Others receive veterans or disability benefits.

Often, police get calls about homeless people passed out after consuming alcohol or other substances around the beginning of the month shortly after many have received benefit checks, Kamakawiwo’ole said.

“We’re attracting more and more because you’re not going to freeze to death,” said Police Chief Gary Yabuta. “You’re going to get a meal. We’re compassionate people.”

While police alone can’t solve problems associated with homeless people, “my officers are taking the brunt,” Yabuta said.

“They’re going to serious, dangerous situations in tent cities. What we can’t do is treat them like the enemy,” he said.

At the Family Life Center in Kahului, director Maude Cumming said Thursday that the agency has seen a steady increase in homeless people, usually men, from the Mainland.

About half of them arrive hoping to find a job and have some money and a place to stay, Cumming said.

“Then it doesn’t work out. They’re at our doorstep,” she said.

She said the other half may have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness.

The organization has worked with police, with an outreach worker usually going to campsite locations before a sweep to provide information about the shelter and resources.

There’s a six-week limit for staying at the shelter, though that may be extended if people are making efforts to find a job or working toward other goals.

“We want people to move along,” she said.

Some people, including some homeless living on property near the Family Life Center, don’t want to comply with shelter rules, she said. In one case, a homeless person didn’t want to take a tuberculosis test.

“A lot of times, they don’t come into our shelter because they have that fear of something or paranoia,” Cumming said. “It can be quite frustrating.”

A 2013 registry counted 455 homeless people on Maui, including 140 in Central Maui, 134 in Lahaina, 125 in Kihei, 34 in Lower Waiehu, 18 Upcountry and four in Hana.

Many more aren’t registered, Kamakawiwo’ole said.

Noting that Lahaina ranked second above Kihei in the homeless count, Commissioner Gregg Lundberg asked why no community policing officers have been assigned to Lahaina while two work in Kihei.

The department’s seven community policing officers also include an acting sergeant, two assigned to Kahului and one each assigned to Wailuku, Makawao and Paia.

Yabuta said that the community policing officers aren’t limited to the area where they’re assigned and work together as a unit. “If there’s a need, they’re going to go,” he said.

“We do need more community policing officers in Lahaina,” he said.

Yabuta said that the community policing program began in 1992 with federal funding that lapsed after three years. When it began, the program had many officers but some weren’t a good fit for the job that requires “thinking out of the paradigm,” Yabuta said.

“We invigorated the program, made sure we’re going to select quality officers,” he said.

He said Lahaina recently started a bicycle patrol and filled positions for school resource officers.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at