Community effort seeks to tackle homeless problems before they get worse

  • Nakoa Pabre, owner of Umekes Fish Market Bar and Grill and Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Shute Villegas speak at a community meeting suggesting solutions to the homeless problem May 22 at the restaurant's Paina Room. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A homeless person sleeps on the stands at Old Kona Airport Park. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A homeless woman who spent the morning screaming obscenities at children and parade-goers is escorted by Hawaii Police officers away from the area during the annual King Kamehameha Day Celebration Parade held June 8 in Kailua-Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Wanting more action to address homelessness in town, proprietors and community members are banding together to help clean up Kailua-Kona.

The move comes on the heels of the state and county working to clear camps erected at various locations in the downtown Kailua-Kona area in April. Organizers hope bringing people together and pooling resources will help keep that ball rolling and bring even more energy to address the issue, before it gets further out of hand.

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“If they can stop those guys from building on Maunakea,” said Nakoa Pabre, owner of Umekes Fish Market Bar and Grill in the Old Kona Industrial Area, to about two dozen people who attended a kickoff meeting held May 22. “We cannot stop these guys in this little town over here?”

Perturbed by the things he witnesses happening in town, including prostitution in the vicinity of his business, public drunkenness and finding drug paraphernalia and feces in the dugouts where his children play baseball at Old Kona Airport Park, Pabre brought people together to see what more can be done — and done now.

“I’ve been helping coaching the last four years and seen it get worse. They’re using the dugouts for their houses, and they’re s———g and p——-g all over the fields so when we have a game, our poor kids got to sit in those dugouts where it’s nasty,” he said. “It’s out of control.”

The effort all started with a simple Facebook post by Pabre asking people about their “experiences” with the homeless in Kona. After a couple hundred comments and harrowing, if not disgusting stories, from the community, he was motivated to call a meeting to bring people together for an informal sit-down on the topic.

“To make a movement,” he said.

In the Paina Room on May 22 people from all sorts of walks of life sat in a circle and talked about the issues and what they can do to help bolster efforts already underway. There was no agenda and all questions and ideas were talked over among the group. Nothing was on — or off — the table, including questions about creating sit-lie laws and how to stop panhandlers on the streets.

The grassroots initiative was attended and led by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who told the group she plans to be a connection between the community, county and organizations to facilitate finding a solution to the problem here because, as she said, “right now, it’s like whack a mole — clear them out of here, they go there.”

“I can be a conduit for the information and for trying to help be part of the process of the solution,” she told the group, noting her plans to relay what she heard that evening to various parties unable to attend, including police and parks and rec staff, with the hope of having them there at the next meeting planned for Monday.

During the two-hour gathering, the informal conversation floated around from the county’s plans for Village 9 and what else the county is doing to address homelessness and how the community can support those efforts, including helping police and fundraising, to making living on the streets in West Hawaii uncomfortable and less attractive for those in that lifestyle.

Village 9 moving ahead, but is it fast enough?

Regarding Village 9, Villegas said the project was moving along, but would take time to be built. She suggested an emergency shelter could be online this summer, providing additional space for those without walls and a roof over their head.

In the meantime, a draft environmental assessment is set to be released next month for the project, kicking off a 30-day public comment period, Sharon Hirota, Mayor Harry Kim’s executive assistant assigned to homelessness, told the newspaper on Friday. A public hearing will also be scheduled in West Hawaii.

Village 9 consists of two subprojects, Hirota said. The first being “Kukuiola” homeless emergency shelters followed by (a) permanent supportive housing component and a HHFDC affordable rental-housing component.

The first phase of 20-30 emergency shelter housing units would be constructed with an associated temporary intake facility. Future phases will allow for up to an additional 60-90 emergency housing units that would be grouped in three to four clusters. In addition, the preliminary plans calls for a mini-mart that could be a part of the job and/or financial counseling program, she said.

The permanent supportive housing, which will be on the southern portion of the site below the emergency housing component, will feature approximately 12.7 acres of develop-able area and will be allocated toward permanent supportive housing at an approximate density of 20 units per acre.

The possibility of opening some form of shelter during the “summer months” was in the plans, Hirota said, but the county will be delaying that until the draft EA is published for public comment.

She said on Friday that the county “is moving quickly to complete Phase I of the project,” adding that funding is also being secured for the full build-out of the project.

But, “we don’t have a timeline,” she said.

The effort should be bolstered by a third supplementary emergency proclamation that extends the disaster emergency relief period for homelessness across the state that Gov. David Ige signed on June 10. First issued in December, Ige’s supplementary proclamation extends the relief period through Aug. 7.

‘If they take over, it’ll be worse’

But what about those who don’t want to follow rules or proscribe to living in a shelter?

“Ideally, when Village 9 is built, it’s going to be you’ve got to go there or you’re going to jail,” Villegas told the group. … “It is my hope – and mind you I’m no expert in how to handle the homeless population – for the police to be able to separate the population. Those who want help will be at Village 9 and those who do not will still be loitering and in my mind that makes it a little easier to identify.”

Many of those without shelter living on the streets say they would be willing to use the site, though there are always those who will not. There is some apprehension to being “confined” or “stuck” there, but it’s a possibility.

“We don’t choose to be homeless,” said Tita on Friday, a woman living on the streets who’s signed up for assistance from various services and is awaiting placement. “We’re just waiting for an opportunity. We don’t want to stay here forever. We just need help.”

Pabre and others who attended the May 22 meeting stressed the town can’t afford to wait until services or beds are available.

“The way our county moves, that’s going to be 10 years from now – we’ve got to do something now, if not soon,” Pabre said about Village 9.

“If they take over, it will be worse.”

Among the things the group also discussed that could be done relatively quickly was increasing security and lighting in the Kailua-Kona area. Attendees touched on the cost of hiring private security and what role the Kailua Village Business Improvement District plays to the possibility of establishing a group of community individuals to provide some form of “security.”

“One quick answer can be if we just add a bunch of lights,” Pabre suggested, pointing out that homeless and the non-scrupulous often flock to dark areas, such as at Old Kona Airport Park. “All these dark areas where they are hanging out, put lights. They’re like cockroaches unfortunately — put the light on and they going be running away.”

Stefanie Gubser, operations manager at Manini Holdings, oversees 6 acres that includes Brewery Block on Pawai Place. About $2,000 is spent for 24-hour private security with limited patrols of the property situated in what she described as the “Bermuda triangle,” which covers from about Atlas Recycling on Alapa Street to HOPE Services on Pawai Place to the Ice House liquor store on Kaiwi Street.

“I am out there pounding the pavement every day trespassing people, calling the police,” Gubser said. “We’re dealing with the people who don’t want the help or the services but want to run amok.”

She further questioned the role the county-contracted Kailua Village Business Improvement District should play in the effort, since part of the deal is security.

“I have never once seen one person that is a representative of KVBID saying they are here to actively patrol because they’re getting paid,” Gubser told the group.

Security for public areas, including parks, and areas along Alii Drive, particularly in the Kailua Village core, is also needed, attendees agreed.

A pilot project at Hale Halawai in May that put security guards at the site was successful and continues.

“Hale Halawai is not where kids are playing — we need it where are kids our playing,” Pabre and others in the group said, throwing out specific parks like Old Kona Airport Park and Magic Sands or Laaloa Beach Park.

Roxcie Waltjen, director of the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation, contacted Friday said the Hale Halawai security will continue until she feels it’s no longer needed. The department is also looking to expand the number of sites that have security. Currently with security are four east-side parks, Mooheau, Pahoa Regional, Isaac Hale Beach Park and Lincoln Park.

“We have a couple more on our list and we are moving forward with some other options that we can discuss at the meeting,” Waltjen said.

Next steps forward

The group on May 22 also discussed fundraising to pay for security — or even creating their own security hui to help out, with some throwing out ideas of civilian arrest and other unconventional means.

“I wonder what authority could be made for a community security organization and what training would be needed,” Villegas said. “I will look into that.”

With the first meeting a wrap, a follow-up gathering is set for 6 p.m. Monday at the Paina Room at Umekes Fish Market Bar and Grill.

“There’s a real earnest, curiosity and a desire to get involved and help,” Villegas said. “I want to be able to bring all the information we can to this kind of group of people in this area of town and provide some ways that you’re every day person can help.”

Villegas and Pabre plan to have a variety of players attend the next meeting, including nonprofits, landowners and county officials.

“What we’re trying to put together is an opportunity for our next meeting to be a creative, cohesive and collaborative sharing time with each of these organizations,” she said.

She called the effort to connect private and public “fantastic.”

“This is what it takes — collaboration,” Villegas said.

“This isn’t a task force, this is how to connect our community to the people that are working on the issue so that they understand what’s going on, what’s being done, what they can do, what the timetable is, how government’s hands are tied and what resources there are and how they can contribute to the solution.”

Meeting Attendees:

The following people/representatives are slated to attend Monday’s meeting:

– Kailua Village Business Improvement District President Jane Clemente

– Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Laros

– Hawaii Police Department Community Policing Sgt. Joseph Stender

– Hawaii County Deputy Managing Director Barbara Kossow

– Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim’s Executive Assistant Sharon Hirota

– Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas

– HOPE Services Deputy Director of Operations Reinette “Ipo” Morgan

– Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina

– Manini Holdings Operation Manager Stefanie Gubser

– Kona Metro Security Services Owner Carey Durden

– Queen Liliuokalani Trust Kona Operations Manager Kehau Gomes (tentatively scheduled)

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– Twinkle Borges, who oversees Puuhonua o Waianae, a homeless village of 200 people that operates on Oahu

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said he would like to attend, but didn’t have enough notice to make it happen. He plans to attend the next meeting, however.

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