WAILUA — Five county parks have been established as permitted sheltering zones for the Kaua‘i houseless community by Mayor Derek Kawakami as part of the effort to contain the novel coronavirus — Lucy Wright, Salt Pond, Lydgate, Anahola and Anini — and many of them are already established campsites with varying levels of community organization.
At Lydgate Park, a self-designated houseless community called Lydgate Lahui has been growing since 2006 near Kamalani Kai (the Bynum Bridge), organized by 49-year-old veteran Ku‘uleinani Napuanani Kaninau (Napuanani McKeague). She arrived at the community after losing a job. With benefits from her time serving in the military, Kaninau said she didn’t have to move to the campsite more than a decade ago, but chose to join her daughter who was living there with five children.
Shortly after arrival, while contemplating her first experience of being fired from a job, Kaninau had a conversation that changed her perspective. She started considering her talents and realized she had the skills to unite the group of people at the camp and organize a community.
“That was the beginning,” Kaninau said. “Our mission is to give voice to those that feel they have none. Our purpose is to empower and advocate.”
The early April mayoral mandate outlined Lydgate and the other four county parks as permitted places for Kaua‘i’s current houseless population, not for incoming people without a place to stay. Permits are mandatory if people choose to stay in those five places, and are issued free of charge. A county spokesperson said Wednesday that houseless individuals are not being forced to “congregate in designated county parks.” Instead, the places are seen as safe areas for the houseless community.
“As a practical matter, there are houseless individuals sheltering on county, state and private property in every community on our island,” the spokesperson said. “During the COVID-19 emergency, these individuals are generally not subject to arrest provided that are not otherwise engaged in illegal activity.”
COVID-19 complicated things
To ensure people don’t fly to Kaua‘i and then stay in one of these communities, officials warn incoming passengers of the new rules. A checkpoint at Lihu‘e Airport is used to advise arrivals of the 14-day quarantine rule, where they are given three options: prove secure lodging and stay there for 14 days, get back on a plane or go to jail.
Kaua‘i Police Department Assistant Chief Bryson Ponce said those arrested are held in cellblock on $100 bail. They must provide an address for quarantine after posting bail or they are required to leave the island.
Many in the Kaua‘i houseless population are moving to the designated areas, Lydgate included. Kaninau has kept a detailed list of people who live at Lydgate Lahui, and shares the information with county and state officials who occasionally come by the camp.
Among a core group of longtime habitants at Lydgate Lahui are many newcomers — Kaninau says there are 70 individuals living in their campsites, ages ranging from 10 months old to 74 years. To handle the amount of people moving to the campsite since COVID-19 rules have been created, she leans on a handful of trusted individuals. All of them have job titles and responsibilities within the camp.
The community counselor
Patrick Garcia, 44, is Kaninau’s second in command and the community’s counselor, and has been in and out of the self-designated community for six years. He’s done time in jail for drugs, and says that experience helps him with his Lydgate Lahui responsibilities of ensuring a respect for the rules.
Garcia lives at the camp with his girlfriend and their children, and says his challenges in finding lodging are widespread: rent is high, requirements are strict and availability is low.
As he watches more and more people show up to Lydgate Lahui, Garcia said he’s thankful the county designated a few places for the houseless community, and that Lydgate was among them.
“It’s good. You feel a little bit better. There is a place we can go to,” Garcia said. “I had times the police would come and say we cannot sleep here, or sleep in the car. Where can we go then? They tell us, ‘I don’t know.’”
Lawrence Descoteau takes charge of research and media, and is also treasurer for Lydgate Lahui. He’s also watched the campsite grow quickly, and said his viewpoint has changed since first hearing about the novel coronavirus.
“I wasn’t scared when I first heard about it. I didn’t think it would get to this point,” said Descoteau.
Among the state and county workers who occasionally visit the park are representatives who are there to provide information on social-distancing protocols, distribute soap, hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies, and generally monitor the health of the homeless population through discussiond. Agencies represented are the County Housing Agency and Department of Parks &Recreation, state Department of Health and Kaua‘i Economic Opportunity.
These outreach workers are not equipped to conduct medical testing.
Kaninau said while the group is grateful for the information and supplies, she and the others who have organized this self-designated community want to talk directly with Kawakami. Kaninau believes in working together with the county and state instead of having someone make educated guesses. She was also asked by the other park campsites to organize their camps as well.
“I wish I could sit down with the mayor or the ones that make the decisions for us. People don’t know what we really need or go through unless they were houseless themselves,” said Kaninau. “(Here we have) people who lost their jobs, people who are doing drugs, some who are losing their minds and women who are battered from domestic violence and kupuna who lost their homes. They need counselors, health care and time to heal.”
Torrie Parli, 33, is a newcomer to the Lydgate campsite and to the island. She arrived a day before the 14-day traveler quarantine was mandated. She had a place to stay lined up before landing on the island, and was coming to Kauai to “make a difference.” Her hopes for lodging were dashed when she turned on her cell phone after landing on Kaua‘i, though. The room she booked was no longer available — for anyone.
“I flew on a $197 one-way ticket to live here,” Parli said. “I got off the plane with three bags and I turned on my phone. Text messages and voice mail saying: ‘Sorry we’ve been alerted that we can’t let anyone in.’”
Now another appointed research and media person in Lydgate Lahui, Parli said she doesn’t see her situation as being “off track” with her plans when she sold all her possessions and moved to Kaua‘i.
“Even though it might not have been the plan I originally had, here’s the thing, I am living here. I am doing what I came here to do,” she said.
Stephanie Shinno, features and community reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.