Expiration of mayor’s emergency proclamation prompts closure of Kona homeless encampment

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today A Camp Kikaha resident moves her belongings after the encampment at Old Kona Industrial Area was shut down Tuesday.

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today Camp Kikaha homeless encampment in the Old Industrial Area was shut down Tuesday.

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today Camp Kikaha resident Amane repairs his bike before moving out of the encampment Tuesday.

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today Camp Kikaha volunteer manager Linda Vandervoort, facing camera, says goodbye to a resident as the homeless camp at Old Kona Industrial Area closes Tuesday.

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today County Parks and Recreation employees are joined by volunteers cleaning up Camp Kikaha as it is shut down Tuesday.

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County on Tuesday closed Camp Kikaha in the Old Kona Industrial Area, a temporary homeless encampment located adjacent to HOPE Services Hawaii in Kailua-Kona, after operating the site for more than seven months.

Lance Niimi, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim who specializes in managing Hawaii Island’s homeless problem, said the camp was never meant to be permanent.

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The expiration of an emergency proclamation made by Kim in August 2017 prompted the camp’s closing. The proclamation allowed the camp to operate outside standard zoning, building and fire codes. Niimi said proclamations typically last two months, but the mayor has the leeway to extend them if he sees fit.

Linda Vandervoort, a volunteer who handled day-to-day management of Camp Kikaha essentially since its inception, said a lack of running water and fire hazards because of the canopies and pallets used to set up and separate individual living units factored heavily into the decision to shut the camp down.

“We’ve been saying for months that this camp, everything as it is, isn’t designed to be permanent, isn’t sustainable to be permanent, and we stretched it out as long as we could,” Vandervoort said. “It would take quite a bit of work to bring us up to code and make this as safe as it could be, and we were just not able to do that.”

She said the county’s shifting focus to more permanent solutions such as Village 9 — a proposed, long-term housing site off Kealakehe Parkway — along with a sister site in Hilo and potentially Pahoa also played a role.

The state recently granted Hawaii County $184,000 for the development of a master plan and an environmental assessment at the Village 9 site after striking a deal with the county to transfer 15 acres of state land for use as a permanent homeless site. The community will have a chance to add input on the proposed project during the EA process.

The state retained the rest of the roughly 35-acre plot and plans to build affordable housing units there.

Niimi said the hope is to fund all the proposed permanent homeless sites via a combination of one-time CIP monies from the state this year and legislation moving this session that would create long-term programs such as “Ohana Zones” to provide operational funding in perpetuity.

Hawaii County remains host to nearly 1,000 homeless individuals, according to the Point-in-Time Count conducted in January 2017.

Niimi added the decision to shut down Camp Kikaha was ultimately his, with approval from Kim. Money, Niimi explained, was definitely a concern.

Overall cost for the camp was substantial in the early going until the county dispatched with security services that totaled $15,400 per month for the first three months of the camp’s existence.

The county then shifted gears to self-management. Costs subsequently dropped to $500 a month for portable toilets and smaller additional amounts for cleaning supplies and the like.

“The county has a very tight budget,” Niimi explained. “I proposed some other options to keep (the camp) open, we tried, but I think we made the right decision. We have to move on.”

All told, Camp Kikaha served 51 homeless individuals since the open-air, canopied facility was constructed in August after the eviction of dozens of homeless residing in Old Kona Airport Park just down the road.

Vandervoort said as of Tuesday, 17 people were placed in emergency housing with HOPE Services Hawaii, five of which went in Monday night. Two graduated to permanent housing. Three residents rejoined family members in stable living situations, and six homeless individuals found jobs. Vandervoort said employment numbers are fluid and might soon be higher.

There were some rocky points in the camp’s history. Three residents were arrested, two were evicted for using drugs on the premises and four were unable to assimilate into a living situation that required the development of communication skills and strategies to deal with conflict resolution among some who suffered from mental and/or behavioral health issues.

Seven others were asked to depart because of behavioral issues, while five left for reasons of their own. One homeless person from the camp found their way into a residential treatment program.

Shanon Pua, 42, a Big Island native who has lived on the streets for the past decade, resided at Camp Kikaha since its inception. On Monday night, he moved into emergency housing across the lot, but attended the camp cleanup Tuesday morning with members of the county Department of Parks and Recreation and other volunteers.

Pua, who is exploring multiple job opportunities, struggled to find the words to describe what the camp meant for him but noted it provided him with structure and a sense of home — the first he’d experienced in a long while.

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “(Camp Kikaha) was more than good. It was way more than good.”

County Managing Director Wil Okabe said in a press release Tuesday afternoon the county found alternate housing for every resident of Camp Kikaha, but some residents refused to be relocated.

“We want to encourage these folks to accept what we’re offering in terms of accommodation,” he said.

Vandervoort said Tuesday morning that nine homeless individuals remained without a solution. Niimi confirmed that some of those nine refused emergency housing options but that others are still considering the possibility. If they choose to accept that option, they would be put on a waiting list as the emergency shelter has no vacancies.

“Everybody wanted to stay (at the camp),” Vandervoort explained. “Especially for some of the women when you don’t have a safe place to stay out there and all of the sudden you have a safe place, it’s hard to give that up to unsurety.”

The county press release indicated the state promised $25,000 for code-compliant tents or igloos that are fire-resistant. Niimi said those originally were intended for Camp Kikaha. If the county does receive the money for their purchase, discussions will take place as to where the structures might be installed.

Vandervoort said benefits at Camp Kikaha ranged from medical and social services outreach to skill building for transition back into mainstream society.

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“First and foremost, it gave unsheltered people a place to sleep where they could legally be,” Vandervoort said.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.