There was no place else for them to go on the small island of glitzy resorts and tranquil beaches where the cost of living is through the roof and there are limited services to help them get back on their feet.
Honolulu has some shelter and housing programs in place, and helped house or financially support more than 1,400 people this year.
But there are long waits for services and a shortage of low-income housing for the homeless population that the National Alliance to End Homelessness said was second per-capita in the nation last year after Washington, D.C.
Unlike expensive real estate markets on the mainland, in Hawaii, there are only so many places people can move to and clearing encampments isn’t helping, said Jenny Lee, staff attorney for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
“We have excessive demand for all levels of housing, but it’s the most acute for people at the low end,” Lee said
The city has set aside at least $16.8 million for services and to secure apartments for homeless people in 2015, including plans to develop a facility on Sand Island to temporarily house transients in units made from shipping containers.
City officials also are backing $32 million in bonds to finance other housing for homeless people.
Meanwhile, complaints from tourists and residents have prompted the city to ban sitting and lying down on sidewalks in Waikiki. The prohibition has been expanded to some neighborhoods in recent months.
Honolulu spends $15,000 a week on the crews that head out daily to clean up tent cities that emerge around Oahu. Workers toss out four to eight tons of junk and garbage – from mattresses and bicycle parts to needles and human waste – every week, said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
“Can you imagine what the city would look like if we weren’t doing that?” Broder Van Dyke said. “It’s a health and safety issue. It’s something that just has to be done. We wish that it wasn’t necessary.”
Some see the exercise as futile since the campers generally return.
“If you think about $15,000, that could pay for a family to live for a year,” Lee said. “It’s very hard to justify the amount spent clearing people out when they know people will come back in about an hour.”
During the recent canal sweep, many homeless people waited it out on side streets in the industrial area in downtown Honolulu, their shopping carts weighed down by rugs and sleeping materials, while children played near strollers stuffed with clothes and other belongings.
“Sometimes we can’t carry it all, so things get thrown out,” said Stefanie Sanchez, who lives along the banks of the Kapalama Canal with her five-year-old daughter. Sanchez said she’s on a waiting list to get into Honolulu’s Housing First program, which provides homes to chronically homeless individuals and families.
Hawaii is not alone in grappling with what to do about such tent cities. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says people have been living in tent cities or smaller encampments in at least 41 of 50 states. In many cases, residents of the encampments were evicted.
“We’re the richest country in the world,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the group. “The fact that we have tent cities shouldn’t be something that’s acceptable. We can and we should do better.”