LIHUE — For hundreds of people on Kauai it is illegal to sleep at night for 10 months out of the year.
Laws prohibiting unpermitted camping are enforced by county park rangers during frequent early morning raids at public spaces and ignored by prosecuting attorneys, who refuse to pursue cases against people whose only crime is not living in a house.
Kauai County codes require anyone who camps on any public park between 5 p.m. and 10 a.m. to get a permit from the Department of Parks and Recreation, but the statute limits the number of days to 60 a year.
It is against the law to sleep in a car overnight anywhere on Kauai other than the public parks, and the county has no temporary housing facility, leaving a handful of local church organizations and nonprofits to pick up the slack.
A recent survey estimated roughly 350 people on Kauai regularly sleep outdoors, and that number is almost certainly low, according to Pastor Darryl Kua of Westside Christian Center, who participated in the count and said the published figures probably represent only half of the actual amount of people on the island who live in parks, on beaches or in hidden forest camps.
Court records show that Kauai County park rangers have issued 132 citations for unpermitted camping at public parks since September alone, almost exclusively to lifetime or long-time island residents with no registered physical address.
More than half of those tickets were given to one of only six people, all of whom live in county parks on the Westside and say rangers have been intentionally targeting and harassing them for months.
Lucy Wright Park
In the 10-week period between Sept. 5 and Nov. 19, the residents of Lucy Wright Park in Waimea were cited at least 68 times for illegal camping.
Six of those went to Jenell Fresquez, a 56-year-old woman who has been on the island for years. Fresquez has been given 38 tickets for camping without a permit in the last year, all of which require mandatory court appearances, which she struggled to find time for in between doctor appointments for her husband’s open-heart surgery. He died three months ago.
Her neighbor, Theresa Rosare, 57, got a dozen tickets for unpermitted camping in September and October alone and has been cited 31 times so far in 2019. Roxanne Yong and her boyfriend Milton Carter, also Lucy Wright Park residents, were ticketed over 120 times in the past year, either for “illegal camping” or “unauthorized structure.”
With the exception of Carter, who is disabled and wheelchair-bound, none of them have criminal records outside of the camping citations.
“They trying to get me out of the park, but honestly, where am I gonna go with a family and a boyfriend who’s handicapped?” Yong said. “And, truthfully, if I was a park ranger, I would not have the heart to give anybody a ticket.”
“Imagine we trading shoes one day,” Yong told a park ranger one morning, after he gave her a ticket. “I go home to your home, and you go to mine. You wake up every morning to Kalani and my children; I wake up to your family. You know, I’ll be appreciative more than you would be appreciative of mine, because honestly, it’s a hard job.”
Salt Pond Beach Park
About a month ago, park rangers moved on to other parks around the island, rousting people from tents and cars in the dark — the time written on most citations is between 4:45 and 6:30 a.m. — at county beach parks in Wailua, Kapaa, Anahola, Anini and others. But Salt Pond residents got the most attention.
Joseph Kaneapua, who lives at Salt Pond with his family, has been cited six times in the past month for not having a camping permit or refusing to take down his tent during park-maintenance days. Except for a misdemeanor from 2003, he, too, has no criminal record.
Kaneapua’s four children were left to fend for themselves on Dec. 11, when Kaneapua was arrested for having his tent up during Salt Pond Beach Park’s scheduled maintenance hours. His son shook him awake at 5 a.m., saying, “Daddy! Police are outside!”
Kamuela Gomes got arrested that morning at Salt Pond as well. He was also cited a half dozen times since mid-November for the same reasons. Gomes has no prior convictions either, but has been in and out of court on a regular basis in the past four years, challenging the legal rights of large-scale real estate developers in the state appellate court.
Gomes said he and hundreds of other Native Hawaiians on Kauai without an American-style home wouldn’t be living on the beach if their land hadn’t been stolen from them, an opinion that is gaining increasing support from international political activists and experts.
United Nations Independent Expert Alfred-Maurice de Zayas sent an open letter last year to the Hawaii State Judiciary, calling for an end to “the wrongful taking of private lands” in the Hawaiian Islands, which he described as “a nation-state that is under a strange form of occupation by the United States resulting from an illegal military occupation and a fraudulent annexation.”
“It’s an uncomfortable truth for many, because they come here, buy something that’s so expensive, and they actually don’t own it,” Gomes said. “You know what this our country is right now? It’s a pirate’s paradise.”
For guys like Lincoln Niau the concern is a practical and immediate one. Niau has managed to avoid getting ticketed by the rangers, but county policies restricting access to the parks remain a constant burden.
The Parks and Recreation Department closes all public parks for 26 hours each week from 10 a.m. to noon the following day for maintenance. At Salt Pond, the closure period starts on Tuesday morning. The locals call it “breakdown day.”
During that time, Niau has to pack his family’s possessions into a car and find a place to stay, all the while taking care of his three young children and holding down a job.
“Why we have to set up on Wednesday at 12? I mean, they come and they break down on Tuesday,” he said. “Before, we used to set up camp in the morning, but now on Wednesday we set up at 12, at noon — just like the whole day wasted!”
According to county officials, park maintenance on breakdown day consists of “mowing and weed-whacking, trimming of hedges and additional trash and debris pick-up,” but Niau said county workers normally spend less than an hour doing the work and never really complete the job anyway.
“Get little rubbish there, little rubbish here. They don’t see it cause it’s dark when they come. But I got one dustpan and rake inside of my car to pick up rubbish. Me and this guy right here,” he said, placing a hand on top of his 3-year-old son’s head. “We pick up the rubbish.”
On Wednesday morning, after county workers completed a half hour of maintenance that included no mowing, no weed-whacking, no trimming of hedges and left the bathroom toilets dirty, Niau and his son Legend walked up and down the beach and lawn area picking up trash while they waited for noon to come so they could set up their home.
“I been down here a long, long time,” Niau said. “This is where I was where I was born and raised right here. This waters, this whole beach, this is like my backyard. My dad used to take care of this park.”
The hundreds of illegal camping citations issued this year have resulted in few convictions or fines because county prosecutors refuse to pursue charges, according to Kauai County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar, who said he is “fundamentally opposed” to the premise that it is a crime not to own a house.
“Using the criminal courts to kick people, mostly locals, who are already down isn’t helping anything,” Kollar said Thursday. “They can’t get to court, they can’t pay the fines, and so they get stuck in a spiral they can’t get out of. Homelessness is a community problem we cannot cite our way out of.”
A Fifth Circuit judge dismissed 15 cases set for arraignment on Wednesday at the request of prosecutors, who referenced a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision not to revive a law barring people without a house from sleeping outdoors.
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a lower-court ruling that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of one’s status or being.”
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors,” a judge wrote in the Ninth Circuit Court decision, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
Kollar’s deputy prosecutors have had nearly 50 such cases thrown out since September, but the policy has done little to stem the tide, as county park rangers continue to issue the citations on such a regular basis that the courts can’t get rid of them fast enough. Another 50 are scheduled for court dates in coming months
There are virtually no government services, housing or otherwise, for the portion of Kauai’s population without a home.
County public information officials refused to allow TGI to interview or communicate directly with Parks and Recreation Director Patrick Porter, insisting all inquiries be sent via email through a spokesperson, who sent a brief response that failed to address most of TGI’s questions.
Native Hawaiian activists like Gomes say that the only long-term solution is to return the land to its rightful owners.
“The state needs to reconcile with the Native Hawaiians, and begin to follow their own laws,” he said. “This is our country, and we need to act like it.”
In the meantime, Lucy Wright Park resident Roxanne Yong and others like her are proposing a fix that wouldn’t cost a dime, could be implemented tomorrow, and would free up the time and resources of the parks department, the prosecuting attorneys office and the judiciary.
“What should they do?” Yong asked. “Just give this park to the people.”
Her sentiments were echoed by dozens of people living at parks on the Westside, who do not understand why county officials cannot simply recognize that these public places are their homes.
“They’re not thinking in terms of homelessness,” Pastor Kua said of county policymakers. “The reality is they’re going to have to rethink their process.”
Kua has spent years working with the residents of Lucy Wright Park and hundreds of others who visit the church’s food pantry. He said the simplest solution may be the best one.
“The ones that I’ve talked to want to get off the beach, but there’s no real option for them,” Kua said. “There’s no real harm or foul if you let them just stay there.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.