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Mayor defends cleanup as Kanaha access reopens

ACLU, advocates called for efforts to halt amid lack of shelter options

Shopping carts and leftover belongings sit at the entrance to Amala Place on Wednesday, where county and state workers and contractors have asked houseless residents to leave as they remove vehicles and solid waste from the road. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

KAHULUI — Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino is defending the cleanup of a large homeless encampment on Amala Place this week, saying it was creating health and safety hazards and blocking access to state and county properties.

The cleanup has been criticized by the ACLU of Hawaii and advocates for the homeless residents living along the road who say people had few other places to go. The ACLU called for the county to “immediately cease the sweep” and all others countywide.

“The county must consider other alternatives — alternatives that are safer, sounder, lawful and humane — over the police-led, punishment-heavy approach that the county is employing, which further criminalizes houselessness,” ACLU Legal Director Wookie Kim said in a letter on Tuesday. “Such alternatives are many, and include housing people in vacant hotels, and designating safe places for houseless people to reside.”

For the past week, Maui County and state Department of Land and Natural Resources workers and contractors have been towing derelict vehicles and clearing rubbish from the road shoulder leading to Kanaha Beach Park. Workers removed 41 derelict vehicles and 50 tons of solid waste from the area by Tuesday and another 13 vehicles and 8 tons of waste on Wednesday.

The county expects to reopen Amala Place and the Amala gate to Kanaha Beach Park today.

Amala Place on Wednesday was nearly clear of the dozens of cars that once lined the roadway, though a handful of cars and some residents still lingered.

Victorino said the encampment impeded critical access to a state-owned wildlife sanctuary and a county-owned wastewater reclamation facility.

“The encampment itself had become a health and safety hazard that placed both occupants and members of the public at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday evening. “This week’s clean-up was focused on disposing solid waste and removing derelict cars that had accumulated on Amala Place and adjacent public lands. No houseless person was arrested and none of their personal effects were discarded or destroyed.”

One advocate observing the efforts was arrested by Maui police on Tuesday.

Other observers said that the cleanup was not organized well enough to allow residents time and resources to find alternative shelter and a place for their belongings.

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.

“While we understand that the Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary and Wailuku-Kahului areas are important public lands, sweeping public areas of and forcibly evicting people who have no other place to rest is inhumane,” Kim said. “The houseless people living at the encampment have no other choice: there simply is not enough space and safety in Maui’s homeless shelters.”

Victorino responded Thursday evening that the county has been working with multiple offices and agencies to offer services and shelter.

“Specific to the Amala Place encampment, social workers from Family Life Center have regularly provided outreach services to the area for years,” he said. “In early summer, when the plan to clean up Amala Place was being developed, Family Life Center staff intensified their outreach to the Amala Place encampment to encourage area occupants to accept shelter and services.

“During the past six weeks, outreach visits have taken place almost daily,” Victorino continued. “Social workers explained the planned clean-up and offered options for shelter and services. Many accepted these offers while others opted to relocate outside of the area.”

Maude Cumming, executive director of Family Life Center, said that workers conduct an assessment of residents to help identify barriers to getting permanent housing.

“Our immediate goal was to provide safe shelter, whether it’s emergency shelter or permanent housing, and then find resources, whether it’s financial or other kinds of resources — connections with mental health, connections with treatment — and then working on a plan for permanent housing,” Cumming said.

Some people need long-term subsidies, others just need a security deposit. Cumming said Family Life Center tries to determine how to increase clients’ income or get them into subsidized residences so that when financial assistance from the organization stops, people can still afford their housing.

She said the state’s daily emergency shelter vacancy list, which showed only nine spaces available across Maui County as of Tuesday, changes daily, and that between Ka Hale A Ke Ola, Family Life Center’s women and families shelter and the emergency pallet shelters at Waiale Park (which are not included in the statewide count), “we were pretty confident we could move everybody into emergency shelter.”

“I know there’s been criticism — ‘You’re going to put them in a shelter, and then what?’ “ Cumming said. “That’s just going to be temporary. . . . Our goal is to end a person’s homelessness forever.”

One resident living at Amala Place said Wednesday that she had just gotten out of the hospital and came back to see the road almost completely cleared.

“Medical insurance is complicated right now, so I cannot stay at the shelter for the rest bed,” said the resident, who needs physical and occupational therapy and currently relies on a walker.

“I’m gonna ask Family Life Center for help,” she said when asked what she planned to do next. “I do gotta think of my life. I do gotta think of my kids.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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