Aug 11, 2017
KAILUA-KONA — After months of planning, Hawaii County began the long-awaited cleanup of Old Airport Park Wednesday.
Several county departments, State Parks workers, Queen Liliuokalani Trust, Youth with a Mission and a few dozen community volunteers donated their sweat over a nine-hour stretch to clear the brush and collect the trash in an effort that will keep the park closed through Thursday.
Even a handful of inmates from Hawaii Community Correction Center were part of a work program that contributed to the cause. They, as most there, appeared to embrace the civic spirit of the day.
“After 26 years of being incarcerated, it feels good to finally give back to the community,” said HCCC inmate John Perez, as he pruned a kiawe tree with a hand saw.
Workers cleared much of the naupaka bush off of the beach by hand due to the potential presence of cultural artifacts. For some, the effort was something like a two-for-one — a workout in the form of community service.
“Instead of Zumba, come cut weeds,” said Elderly Activities Operations Director Roann Okamura.
Participants focused their efforts Wednesday on the area north of the skating rink. The cleanup, which resumes at 7 a.m. today and runs until 4 p.m., will push southward toward Simmons Field on its second day.
But Parks and Recreation Director Charmaine Kamaka expressed concern about how far the group would get.
Only 36 volunteers had shown up Wednesday before YWAM arrived with a group that essentially tripled that number, all part of a ministry-based leadership training program.
Depending on the number of volunteers available today, Kamaka said she’s hoping to paint the pavilions and the old airplane hangar, which her department intends to utilize as a county building.
Kamaka said those who wish to help can simply show up and the command center will promptly assign them a task.
The cleanup is the last in a series of steps Mayor Harry Kim initiated to address what the county has more or less billed as a reclamation project.
That notion was reflected in the comments of several volunteers, including those of Lizzy Elkjer, a member of the Echo City Knockouts Roller Derby Team who scoured the beach for rubbish with teammate Hannah Rose.
“We use the park rink three days a week, so it was important to come down and be part of the effort to clean it up so it can be a part of the community again,” Elkjer said.
Over the last few years, homelessness has exploded across the state, growing more quickly on Hawaii Island than in any other county. Part of the overflow sent the homeless looking for a place to establish themselves. The sprawling park on the edge of town was a logical choice.
The mayor’s office, police and Parks and Recreation were flooded regularly with calls from citizens angry about the park situation even before Kim was elected. He made known early in his tenure as mayor that homelessness, particularly homelessness on public lands, was a priority issue.
Before the county could move forward with a cleanup, 68 homeless individuals it identified as residing in the park had to be cleared out. Where to send them was a question that held up the cleanup for months and continues to vex Assistant Housing Administrator Lance Niimi.
Of the 68, Niimi and HOPE Services Hawaii were able to secure immediate housing for 17 of them. The county then cleared a space at Hale Kikaha in the Old Kona Industrial Area, the site of 23 micro housing units constructed for chronically homeless last year, and moved 20 more of Old A’s homeless into the open-air camp.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 32 homeless people were residing there.
But not all of them saw the situation at the park these last few years the same way the county and many other citizens did — as the community reclaiming a park unofficially appropriated by the homeless.
Kuuipo, 20, who spent the last month in a tent at Old A, said there isn’t a divide between the community and homeless individuals. For her, the homeless are just another segment of the community — a part of the larger whole.
The sentiment is strong among camp residents that they aren’t always perceived or treated that way, even while most are content with their new situation at Hale Kikaha.
“That’s our home. That’s our ohana place,” Kuuipo said of the park. “Most of these people here, they grew up down there. We feel bad because we feel like we’re not good enough because they kicked us out of there and now they have patrol at night.”
Parks and Recreation hired RMT Enterprises Security Division to patrol the park from 9 p.m.-5 a.m. every night. They have the police on speed dial and call any time they encounter homeless or other campers in the park after hours who refuse to leave.
Reynolds Kamakawiwoole, who owns RMT, said his teams have encountered campers every night but the numbers have grown fewer since they began their patrol eight days ago. He attributed that to word-of-mouth.
The police have been called on at least three occasions to deal with non-compliance, but Kamakawiwoole said those situations quickly resolved themselves.
“Usually when the police get there, they’re packing up their things already,” he said. “They don’t want to get arrested.”
Officer Dewey, of the Kona Community Policing Division, said police are still giving out citations, adding park trespassing is an arrestable offense.
He was optimistic the new strategy of a security presence and open communication with police could be more effective than past efforts.
“I think it has a way better chance of working because at least there’s eyes down there. Before it was a free-for-all,” Dewey said. “It should keep them from getting established.”