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Homeless encampment on Amala nearly cleared

Advocates decry lack of time for residents to move, few open shelters

The cleanup on Amala Place is underway Tuesday morning. Residents in the large homeless encampment have been asked to leave as the county removes vehicles and trash from the area. Advocates say residents were given limited time and few other places to go. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Advocates for homeless residents are denouncing the sweep of a large encampment along Amala Place in Kahului, saying people have few places to go and limited time to clear out before officials wrap up efforts today.

“The biggest issue that I see is that this timeline, although the county says they’ve been planning this for a long time, for the residents it was still rushed,” said Noelani Ahia, one of several community members who showed up to advocate for residents on Amala Place. “And they planned the cleanup before they had the opportunity to house everybody.”

Maui County and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources completed a second day of cleanup on Tuesday, using heavy equipment to remove 41 derelict vehicles and 50 tons of solid waste from the area.

DLNR said the campsites block access for staff and create rubbish that could pose a risk to endangered birds at the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Refuge. The fence surrounding the sanctuary also has been damaged, allowing cats and rats to go after birds, DLNR said.

The Maui Police Department closed Amala Place from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and will restart cleanup again at 7 a.m. today. All remaining vehicles, property and refuse will be removed by 4 p.m., according to the county.

A tow truck removes vehicles from Amala Place Tuesday morning. A county spokesman said the derelict vehicles have been towed for disposal, while vehicles that were occupied or contained personal belongings will be stored for at least 30 days from the date of tow. Individuals must make an appointment to retrieve their belongings.

Social services such as access to shelter and housing services have been offered consistently for several weeks, the county said. “No trespassing” signs were installed on Sept. 1, and two weeks later, MPD officers delivered “notice to vacate” letters to people remaining in the area.

“Over the past several weeks, social workers have been meeting with occupants of the Amala Place area encampment to help move them into shelter before today,” Mayor Michael Victorino said in a news release Tuesday. “This past Friday afternoon, I personally met with a group of camp occupants to explain the need for the State and County to take action. Thanks to the professionalism of MPD, everything went as planned. I am happy to report that no occupants were arrested today.”

One community advocate, Maui resident Summer Starr, was arrested while at the homeless campsite near the wastewater treatment plant on Tuesday morning. As police officers tried to lead her to a patrol car parked about 75 feet away, and with several bystanders taking video with their phones, Starr tried several times to go limp and fall to the ground. Officers supported her by both arms as they walked her to the car.

Starr said she was there as an advocate for the homeless people being displaced by the cleanup.

After Starr’s delivery to the patrol care, a person who did not want to give their name said, “It’s traumatic for all of us. It’s traumatic for the police officers, they just don’t know it.”

Maui resident Summer Starr goes limp as police officers arrest her Tuesday morning during a Maui County cleanup of the homeless encampment on Amala Place in Kahului. Starr said she was at the encampment as an advocate for the people displaced by the cleanup.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Hawaii called on the county to “immediately cease the sweep, and cease sweeps of houseless encampments at all locations countywide,” pointing to the state’s daily emergency shelter vacancy list that showed only nine spaces available across Maui County as of Tuesday.

The ACLU said that the county’s sweep violates both the U.S. and Hawaii constitutions by subjecting houseless people to criminal punishment and penalties while they lack safe, lawful places to go; removing them and their personal property without adequate notice or due process; seizing and destroying their personal property; and deliberately choosing to evict and scatter the residents, placing them in further danger of contracting COVID-19.

At one point, nearly 80 individuals had been living in the Amala Place encampment, the county said. Social workers estimated that about eight to 10 individuals remained in the area by the time work began Tuesday morning. Ahia said she wished the county had a safe, well-managed campsite where homeless residents unable to get shelter could go.

“Many people did scatter early yesterday morning. Nobody knows where they went,” Ahia said. “So now they’re houseless somewhere else, and now they don’t have connections to services. It just perpetuates the same cycle, whereas having something like a managed camp with some basic rules and regulations where people can be safe and have safety in numbers within this community that’s been built, that’s so beautiful. Instead of doing that, now they’re all over the place, and nobody knows if they’re safe or not.”

Lisa Darcy of Share Your Mana, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless on Maui, said the community at Kanaha has evolved over the last two years. Before the county closed the gates to Kanaha at the start of the pandemic, people were spread out across different sections of the park.

“When the gates were closed and everybody moved out of the parks at the onset of the pandemic and ‘shelter in place,’ the ohanas each took up a different location on Amala Place, and it just became like visiting different neighborhoods,” Darcy said Tuesday.

People had access to portable restrooms, water and a dumpster, and there was a barrier at the beginning of the road that kept people from coming in to party in the middle of the night, Darcy recalled. Once the park reopened and all the amenities and the barrier were removed, “that’s when other people started coming in.”

“It wasn’t just the original residents. Then other people started coming in from different parts of the island,” Darcy said. “That’s when we saw the derelict vehicles and people dragging cars in the middle of the night and leaving them there.”

Darcy said residents face many barriers in getting out of homelessness, including the need to take care of other family members, pets or belongings they can’t bring to shelters or the inability to qualify for housing or services because they lack the necessary paperwork.

“If you lose any of these documents, there’s this invisible thick glass that you can’t get through,” Darcy said.

Monique Ibarra, executive director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center, said that the organization has “lowered our barriers as much as we can.” It no longer requires drug or alcohol tests and only asks for ID or a person to vouch for them so a criminal background check can be done, as well as “homeless verification,” which is documented by outreach teams from Family Life Center.

Ibarra said that Ka Hale A Ke Ola has accepted three households (more than one person) and three singles from Amala Place. The West Maui facility, which has 48 units, currently has three vacant two-bedroom units that could go to Amala Place residents. The Central Maui facility, which has 72 units and a men’s dorm where capacity was cut from 32 to 16 because of COVID-19, may be able to offer three more studios.

“We brought in a couple today and we moved a bed in there. That’s all they have is a bed,” she said. “We’re not turning anyone away, but there might be a day or two delay until we can get the furniture and get the unit ready. We’ve done everything we can to bring them in.”

The Amala Place gate will remain locked until 7 a.m. Friday. Access to Kanaha Beach Park will be through Koeheke/Ka’a Street until then, the county said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com. Staff writer and photographer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report.

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