It was just before 7 a.m. and the streets of Waikiki were filled with tourists, surfers, early morning joggers — and Ronnie Cruz, a 34-year-old homeless man getting a ticket from a Honolulu police officer for pushing a shopping cart piled high with his belongings along the sidewalk.
“Happens all the time,” Cruz said after he made his way to the other side of Kalakaua Avenue. “They won’t let you stand over there.”
“I’ve got four of them,” he said, reaching into a billfold as he displayed the tattered tickets.
This Hawaii tourist mecca has seen a surge in its homeless population, up 32 percent over the past five years. The explosion has prompted one of the toughest police crackdowns in the nation, sounded alarms among civic leaders that aggressive panhandlers are scaring off tourists, and set off an anguished debate on how to deal with the destitute in a state that prides itself on its friendly and easygoing ways.
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Honolulu officials say they are confiscating up to 10 tons of property left on the sidewalk by homeless people every week.
“It’s time to declare a war on homelessness, which is evolving into a crisis in Honolulu,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat, wrote in a provocative essay that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in June. “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city.”
In an interview in his City Hall offices, Caldwell said that many of the homeless are people who were drawn here from the mainland by the promise of balmy weather, only to find some of the highest housing costs in the nation and no family nearby to help them through tough times.
Parks closing at night
In addition to seizing the belongings of homeless people, Honolulu is closing public parks at night and banning tents and lean-tos in public spaces.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that in 2013 there were 6,335 homeless in Hawaii, a state of just 1.4 million people, and that the state had the second highest proportion of unsheltered homeless individuals, after California.
“It is generally true in sunshine tourist states that there is a war going on between tourism and development versus helping the homeless,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
But the stakes here are particularly high because the Hawaiian economy is so dependent on tourism. Caldwell said he had received letters from tourists complaining about run-ins with homeless people, and had responded with notes asking them to give the city another chance.
The crackdown has led to what many people say is a noticeable reduction in the Waikiki homeless population. But despite what officials say is a concerted attempt to house the homeless, they acknowledge the steps taken so far have simply displaced many people to parts of Oahu that are off the tourist track.
“We’re so sleep-deprived, we’re running around,” said Bill Garcia, 51, who has been living on the streets of Waikiki since coming from Los Angeles in search of a job. “We ask them, ‘Where do you want us to go?’ and they just say, ‘Get out of Waikiki.’ ”