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Amala Place cleanup benefits everyone

OUR COUNTY

Here is a portion of an email my office recently received from a Makawao fisherman: “Thank you Mayor Victorino for returning Kanaha to fishermen. I practice my ancestral ways of fishing and gathering from the ocean for my ‘ohana. We frequent Ka’a Point on the weekends and while waiting for Kanaha Beach Park to open, we’ve had to wait amongst unsanitary and hazardous conditions. You are doing the right things in keeping our ‘aina and community clean, safe and healthy.”

Amala Place has now been reclaimed as a clean, safe roadway for public access to Kanaha Beach Park. Now locals can fish, windsurf, play volleyball and enjoy time with friends and family. County of Maui employees can enjoy immediate access to the Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility in case of an emergency. State workers can return to their important work at the Kanaha Wildlife Sanctuary. Pedestrians and bicyclists no longer need to navigate mounds of trash and derelict vehicles en route to their destination and businesses can offer their customers and employees a more pleasant experience.

In less than a week, contractors and employees of the County of Maui and state Department of Land and Natural Resources removed 58 tons of solid waste and 54 derelict vehicles from Amala Place. Planning the cleanup took several months. The intervention was necessary to resolve the growing health and safety hazards for both encampment occupants and the community at large.

Illegal occupation of public property had gone on for a while, but not without offers of social services to camp occupants. For years, Family Life Center outreach workers had been meeting regularly with homeless campers there.

We scheduled the intervention for late September. In August, outreach meetings grew in frequency to almost daily. The county knew how many family groups, couples and singles would need immediate shelter accommodations. We wanted to ensure that anyone who agreed to relocate to a shelter would have space available. Family Life Center provided storage units for belongings and made accommodations for pets.

Outreach workers explained the scheduled intervention. On Sept. 1, “no trespassing” signs went up on Amala Place roadsides, followed by a press release. Shortly thereafter, Maui police officers served “notices to vacate” letters to camp occupants.

The intervention proved to be the motivation needed for 40 camp occupants to move into shelter and accept services. One individual moved into permanent housing, and six were able to move in with family or friends.

Now, 47 individuals are now sleeping in comfortable clean beds under a roof. Those in shelters will work with case managers to help them move into permanent housing. Sixteen occupants who refused the offer of shelter and services have since moved out of the area.

Advocates have been calling for the area around Kanaha Beach Park to become a “managed encampment” for the unsheltered. While such programs are often promoted as magical cures for homelessness, the reality is much more complex.

Fortunately, Maui County has learned from mistakes made by other counties. During the pandemic’s early days, Kauai County allowed homeless people to live in five designated beach parks, but the situation quickly grew out of control. In July, when the “safe zone” period ended, Kauai officials struggled to remove occupants from the parks.

In 2018, Hawaii County established a temporary homeless “safe zone” for those removed from the old Kona Airport Park encampment. For seven months, Hawaii County sanctioned “Camp Kikaha,” a 1-acre homeless encampment for 25 people. It cost just $2,000 to set it up, but after a few months, 24-hour security, portable toilets, water spigots and showers raised the monthly operating cost to over $23,000. When rainy season started, occupants used wooden pallets and large canopies for protection, creating a fire hazard. The encampment was eventually closed due to health and safety concerns.

The only way to solve homelessness is to put people in homes, not camps. Maui County is working to develop new solutions for homelessness by learning from best practices that are working elsewhere. These solutions will require creativity, commitment, capital and collaboration between the public and private sectors.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.

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