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Growing homeless encampments on Oahu prompt proposal for armed park rangers

July 10, 2017 - 12:05am

Waikiki resident Jen Tema holds her breath as she jogs past the Diamond Head lookouts because most days the stench from the homeless encampments is overwhelming.

“We’re at the beginning of the toilet,” Tema said on a recent Friday as she passed by a garbage pile that spilled over the oceanside cliffs like a waterfall. “When it’s dead wind, you can barely walk by it. It’s a shame because this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

She quit jogging at night because she didn’t feel safe due to the security risks and health hazards that have surfaced since the neighborhood’s homeless residents began monopolizing public spaces. Her son doesn’t surf at the lookouts because homeless campers dump buckets of feces into the water there. Her kids wear shoes instead of slippers to the parks to avoid stepping on discarded drug needles and used condoms.

City Councilman Trevor Ozawa said he’s been getting similar complaints from constituents in Waikiki and other neighborhoods that he serves. Public safety is driving the need for the city to explore additional ways to keep public spaces safe, said Ozawa, who is working on legislation to create a new city agency with the power to enforce park rules.

Ozawa wants the city to ask voters to approve putting armed park rangers in city parks in a 2018 City Charter amendment. Under Ozawa’s proposal, park rangers would fall under the oversight of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and receive training similar to that of state Department of Land and Natural Resources officers, who carry weapons.

Ozawa envisions rangers patrolling the city’s biggest parks in Waikiki and elsewhere to address everything from illegal camping and living in cars to littering, vandalism and enforcing no-smoking policies.

“We continue to see enforcement issues, continue to have issues with our homeless population in our parks, and need to make our children’s safety a priority,” he said. “We need to continue exploring ways of keeping our park users safe and our facilities free of vandalism and destruction.”

Ozawa’s proposal is garnering support, especially in Waikiki, where city crackdowns, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, have had the unintended consequence of pushing homeless people into other less-policed areas like city parks. Critics say some of the people living in their cars along Paki Avenue are becoming residents and there’s an obvious permanency to some of the illegal campsites at the oceanside cliffs.

“It seems like the homeless situation in Waikiki is worse than it’s been in four years,” said Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Jeff Merz.

From 2015 to 2016, Honolulu police statistics show warnings for all offenses committed in city parks islandwide grew 28 percent, while citations rose 17 percent and arrests rose 56 percent. From 2015 to 2016, warnings for sit-lie dropped 41 percent, but citations rose 33 percent and arrests doubled. From 2015 to 2016, public urination warnings increased more than a thousandfold and citations increased by more than half, but arrests dropped by 90 percent.

Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley said he wants to see more details, but on its surface Ozawa’s park ranger proposal addresses his concerns about homeless people evading Honolulu police.

“All the back-and-forth is just terrible,” said Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Walter Flood. “Calling the police just moves them around. I saw one man go from the beach to the sidewalk to the park four times. Then he went back behind a dumpster in a residential neighborhood. We need something to discourage these people from taking over public spaces.”

John Morgan III, a Niu Valley resident who worries about water contamination when he surfs near Diamond Head, said Ozawa’s park ranger idea is worth exploring. “There’s certainly a need for it, but whatever they do, they need to find balance,” Morgan said.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he’ll work with Ozawa to continue improving parks, but doesn’t support the added expense of armed park rangers to create a “second police force.”

Waikiki resident Stephany Sofos, who is frustrated by the condition of her neighborhood’s parks, agrees.

“I want the government do its job with the resources that it has, but there has to be a sense of urgency,” she said.

Caldwell said he is proceeding on a promise to beef up how the city takes care of its parks. The city recently started closing various sections of grassy areas at Kuhio Beach to let the grass aerate. The Department of Facility Maintenance also is coordinating enforcement at the makai side of Diamond Head Road, known as the Kuilei Cliffs, said city Facility Maintenance Director Ross Sasamura.

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