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Junkyard grows at Kahului Harbor homeless encampment

County says it is working with landowner to clean up property

Travis Rust describes his efforts to clean the beach while standing Thursday morning next to his campsite, which is sandwiched between the ocean and Kahului Beach Road. Area residents and others say the growing junkyard and encampment along the harbor is creating a public health hazard. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — A recent buildup of abandoned vehicles and trash alongside a growing homeless encampment off Kahului Beach Road is drawing the attention of nearby residents and passing drivers who say it’s becoming a “public health concern” and safety issue.

Just below the road near the Kahului Harbor shoreline lies a handful of makeshift shelters along with abandoned vehicles that are being used as living spaces.

Piles of miscellaneous trash, tarps, large appliances, scrap metal, tires, clothes and other items covered the gravel site on Thursday morning.

“Unsightly, unsanitary and unwelcoming are some of the words that come to mind when describing the many areas that have become a blight on our beautiful island,” Kihei resident Connie Magnuson said Friday in an email. “The areas by Kahului Harbor and near the airport are unbelievable. It is absolutely disgusting and continues to worsen.”

Magnuson added that she supports the need for “more aggressive” steps in addressing abandoned cars on Maui and that “the trash and junk has grown exponentially.”

A collection of vehicles is parked alongside Kahului Beach Road Thursday. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui County spokesperson Brian Perry said that county officials have been working with the private landowner to “clean up the property and address homeless issues.”

“This process is ongoing, and we hope to achieve a positive outcome for the community as soon as possible,” Perry said.

On Thursday morning there were about five people who appeared to be living in the area, though volunteers who serve that section of the coastline say the numbers can vary.

Travis Rust, who grew up in the Waiehu area and remembers a time when Kahului Harbor was clear of trash, is now houseless by the shoreline, where living conditions are “pretty harsh.”

He said he originally started frequenting the area to help organize the trash left behind and to keep it in one area to bring awareness to the growing junkyard, but “it just keeps getting worse.”

“It started from the river and then just came this way,” Rust said. “Plenty people come and dump their rubbish, so if they didn’t bring their rubbish, we wouldn’t be here.”

Managing the area and installing “no litter” signs along Kahului Beach Road would help to reduce the amount of junk left by the roadway or floating into the harbor, he said.

“There’s nobody to blame — just fix the problem, that’s all,” he said. “All I like do is clean it up and find a solution.”

Rust said that a police officer stopped by last week and gave him about a month’s notice to vacate the area, but “I don’t know where I’ll go.”

Maui Police Department spokeswoman Alana Pico said Friday that the MPD has no record of an official notice to vacate.

“I do not show any incidents regarding this property,” she said.

Pico reiterated that the county and landowner have been working to come up with a solution.

Pukalani resident Judi Nicholson said that the discarded items and encampment create safety hazards and may deter customers from entering nearby businesses.

“The encampment on (Kahului) Beach Road near the Kahului Harbor is one of our most visible and horrifying ‘dump’ sites,” Nicholson said in an email on Friday. “How is it OK for the county to allow the pile-up and continued accumulation of junk, burned-out cars, upheavals of trash and squalid living conditions?”

Kathleen Kastles and her husband have lived in Waiehu for 19 years, and in recent years have witnessed people abandoning their vehicles along the dirt road behind the storage unit at the northern end of Kahului Beach Road.

The vehicles eventually got removed, but over the past several months, the new “encampment has metastasized” and has become “an eyesore,” said Kastles, who has written two letters to the Mayor’s Office in hopes of finding a solution.

“The whole thing is a sadness and a mess, a sad mess. We’re not really all born equal, nor are we afforded a level playing field,” she said after chatting with a number of people in her community on Friday. “It would require major determination, and difficult decisions and choices, and resources, and luck to deal with successfully.”

There are also cars abandoned along Waiehu Beach Road and Amala Place heading to Kanaha Beach Park, as well as other areas around the island, leaving the vehicles susceptible to stripping, burning or being turned into a living space.

“More and more campers have staked out spots in this area,” she said. “There is a housing crisis all over the U.S., not just here on Maui. Something must be done, and done soon.”

The encampment in Kahului symbolizes the tough realities of those living unsheltered and represents the bigger picture of the complex homelessness problem on Maui.

“It’s a complicated multipronged issue,” said Deb Lynch, board president of a community care-van outreach program called A Cup of Cold Water. “It’s difficult. What we see, generally, is elderly people who have no place to go and can’t be involved in the workforce, we see people who have mental health and addiction challenges, we see families that can’t afford the rent.”

Lynch said that A Cup of Cold Water is made up of volunteers, mostly through Episcopal churches, who help to distribute food, clothing, water, first aid and hygiene products as well as “compassion” to those who need it most.

The group serves around 60 to 100 people in Central Maui once a week.

“We just help them to survive on the streets the best they can by just bringing them some small things,” Lynch said Friday morning. “Don’t think that just a toothbrush and a granola bar is enabling people to stay on the street. We look at it as we’re trying to help them while we are waiting for expanded services, programs and housing.”

There are other community efforts across the Valley Isle that conduct outreach for unsheltered communities, like Maui Rescue Mission or Share Your Mana, for example, and there are also homeless resource centers around the island for those in need, like Ka Hale A Ke Ola or the Salvation Army, but often the demand for resources outweighs the supply and staff available.

Maui County’s Homeless Program Division also partners with local agencies to address illegal homeless encampments and other small “hot spots” by offering services through outreach workers, according to its website.

This year was “particularly difficult” with COVID-19 health and safety protocols, meaning many of the services that were provided before had to be scaled down, Lynch said.

“That has probably led to more of a visible encampment situation,” said Lynch, who has been down by Kahului Harbor to deliver essential items to the unsheltered community.

Whenever any houseless people are asked to vacate or if their encampment is swept, they will just “shuffle around” to another location, she said.

“There’s a lot of different areas that this has been going on,” she added. “It is a situation where there’s no one concrete answer for people. There’s no simple answer to this.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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