Homelessness In Hawaii Essays

The site is hot, black and barren, the only vegetation a tangle of kiawe trees and mangroves that ring the small peninsula, which juts into Ke’ehi Lagoon. Interspersed among the trees — and perched within them — are ramshackle dwellings of every variety. Dozens of them. Cobbled together from plywood, plastic tarps, corrugated metal and bicycle parts. Some float on the water like miniature houseboats.

This is one of Honolulu’s many homeless encampments, and one of its most hidden, occupying a man-made spit in a man-made lagoon — one the result of the other — just east of the Honolulu airport. The approximately 11-acre property is marooned from the rest of the city by a foreboding highway interchange, which tentacles into the surrounding neighborhoods like a giant concrete squid. Until recently, the property was known for two things: its homeless camp and its paintball course, each an assortment of industrial detritus. But if Duane Kurisu has his way, this forgotten parcel will soon be home to Kahauiki Village, a bold new experiment in solving the island’s worsening homeless crisis.

Kurisu is one of Hawaii’s most prominent business owners and real estate investors. He is also part owner of the San Francisco Giants, the Major League Baseball team. In 2015, Kurisu read a pair of articles in Honolulu magazine (a publication he owns) that got him thinking about affordable housing. One was the story of a working-class family who, when their landlord sold their building, could not afford a new apartment and eventually wound up on the street. The other was a photo essay by Diana Kim, a photographer who documented her interactions with her mentally ill and homeless father.

With 487 homeless individuals per 100,000 residents, Hawaii has the largest homeless population per capita in the United States, according to HUD and census data. Oahu alone has close to 5,000 people struggling with homelessness, a number that has generally trended upward for the past eight years.

But what looks like a homeless crisis is actually an affordability crisis. For the past decade or more, the cost of housing has risen faster than the median wage. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu in 2016 was $1,985. Although reasons for homelessness are complex, in Hawaii a lot of people are homeless “because the cost of living is just too high,” Kurisu says. “For the life of me, I don’t know how people afford paying rent.” Because of the cost of shipping, building costs in Hawaii are also higher than in many states, and securing financing for affordable housing developments can be about as easy as a homeless family securing a $700,000 mortgage.

Kahauiki Village will soon replace ramshackle dwellings at Ke'ehi.

That pair of magazine articles convinced Kurisu that he needed to try to help shrink the growing gap between wages and the cost of housing in Hawaii. That summer, while flying back from Hawaii Island with architect Lloyd Sueda, he noticed the Ke’ehi property from the window of the plane. “I said, ‘Let’s look at this parcel right here.’” (Kurisu also apparently saw an opportunity. A local radio station that he owns needed to move its broadcast antenna due to the planned construction of a new commuter rail line. According to Pacific Business News, Kurisu applied for a permit to build the antenna on a part of the Ke’ehi site under a separate application.)

Two years later, construction is underway on phase one of Kahauiki Village, a community of 30 single-family dwellings that will be assembled on the city-owned site and rented to formerly homeless families. The homes — prefabricated, steel-framed boxes manufactured by a Japanese company called System House and purchased by Kurisu — are repurposed emergency housing units, originally deployed after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The one- and two-bedroom units will rent for $725 and $900 a month, respectively, including gas, electricity and water — a fraction of the market rate. Renters will have a kitchen and bath, and access to outdoor fire pits, vegetable gardens, a communal laundry facility, and a childcare center, as well as a variety of other on-site services.

Most importantly, they will have access to work. Vicky Cayetano, the president of United Laundry, a commercial laundry facility that serves some of Hawaii’s largest hotels and healthcare providers, has committed to hiring any and all Kahauiki residents who apply. The company’s facility is a five-minute walk from Kurisu’s development, across a footbridge that spans the Kalihi stream. The work is simple — feeding sheets and towels into industrial-size ironers — but full-time with benefits, a good entry point into the workforce, says Cayetano, who is also a former first lady of Hawaii. She says past efforts to hire homeless individuals have been stymied by two constraints: transportation and childcare. With Kahauiki, she says, both problems are solved.

Vicky Cayetano stands in the busy warehouse of United Laundry.

If built to capacity, Kahauiki could be home to more than 600 individuals. Unlike a shelter, it is a place to live long-term, with no limits on how long families can stay, says Connie Mitchell, the executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs a number of shelters around the state and will help manage Kahauiki once it opens. This project fills a gap in Hawaii’s housing stock and provides families “an opportunity to nest,” Mitchell says, who worked with Kurisu as he developed his plans. “We’re hoping they’ll stick around for a while.”

A Controversial Model

The vision for Kahauiki is plucked directly from Kurisu’s childhood. Growing up in the 1950s in a plantation town called Hakalau on Hawaii Island, his family didn’t have a lot, he says, but they did have security, thanks, in part, to the plantation model, which offered workers low-cost housing.

For many, especially many Native Hawaiians, the sugar industry represents a dark chapter in the islands’ history, inseparable from a legacy of colonization. “Our lands and waters have been taken for military bases, resorts, urbanization, and plantation agriculture,” Haunani Kay-Trask, a well-known Hawaiian scholar and activist, wrote in Cultural Survival Quarterly, the magazine of an indigenous rights advocacy group of the same name, in 2000.

But for immigrant families like Kurisu’s, the sugar plantations were a way to make a decent living, he says. His father worked as a machinist journeyman in the sugar mills. Living in the plantation camp, rent was just $24.50 a month, the water bill $1. The stability offered by such an environment created a lasting impression on Kurisu, who hopes to create a similar sense of community at Kahauiki. “Outside our villages, [people] may have looked at our community as being ghetto,” says Kurisu, the middle of five siblings. “But living in this community, we could live with dignity. And we had a culture where if we had caught two fish, we’d give one away. That’s the culture we want to build here.”

Perhaps controversially, Kahauiki’s aesthetic is also plantation-inspired. Kurisu worked with Sueda, the local architect, to design pitched roofs that mimic plantation-style architecture and can be fitted onto each of the System House units. In addition to vegetable gardens, an orchard of breadfruit and banana trees will help screen the village from the busy highway. “Instead of just looking at the tree, you can pick the fruit and eat,” Kurisu says, adding that he expects many residents will fish as well, just as his family did.

As homelessness has ballooned in cities across the country, many municipalities are experimenting with novel housing strategies. In May 2017, online retailer Amazon announced that it was donating six stories of its new Seattle headquarters to the homeless shelter Mary’s Place. But it is rare for a private individual like Kurisu to take such a strong leadership role in the development of supportive housing — long the domain of nonprofits and social service agencies. He has been at the center of Kahauiki from day one, providing resources through his (nonprofit) Aio Foundation, and also meeting regularly with social service agencies and business leaders, as well as Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell.

To date, all of the design, engineering and construction services have been offered pro bono. Nurseries are holding plants to donate to the village, and System House is donating the building for the childcare center. One local businessman even committed to building an elegant lava stone wall — of the kind found throughout Honolulu — along the street-facing side of the development. The city leased the land to the Aio Foundation for $1 and agreed to provide utilities like water and sewer and add a bus stop at the entrance. The facility’s operating costs will be covered by rental income, Kurisu says, while management will be provided by a joint partnership between IHS and Newmark Grubb, a commercial real estate company.

A prototype home for Kahauiki Village

Kahauiki’s most unusual aspect, however, may be its tactical use of an emergency proclamation. In 2015, Hawaii Governor David Ige declared a state of emergency around homelessness in Hawaii, which increased funding for a variety of housing programs and also allowed the state to fast-track the construction of new shelters, says Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness.

For Kahauiki, the emergency proclamation allowed the city and county of Honolulu to take advantage of special rules that allow government agencies to bypass much of the red tape that often slows affordable housing developments. (In Honolulu, it can take more than six months just to get a building permit.) Because the special rules only pertained to government entities, however, Kurisu needed to find an agency willing to partner. He found that partner in the mayor.

Even with Caldwell signed on, it took time to convince the governor that the project fit the requirements of the emergency proclamation, Kurisu says. But after several meetings, the state of Hawaii, which owned the Ke’ehi property, agreed to transfer the land to the city, which then leased it to Kahauiki for $1 a year. (The lease is for 10 years with a 10-year option since the governor’s proclamation only covers “temporary” structures, and 10 years is the upper limit of what is considered “temporary.”) The proclamation also allowed the governor to mobilize the National Guard, which is helping pour the foundations for the homes. Kurisu says this is the first time a state has joined with a branch of the military to build housing for the homeless.

Others are trying similar tactics. A month before Ige made his announcement, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency on homelessness in Los Angeles. A day later, Mayor Charlie Hayes did the same in Portland, Oregon. But Hawaii remains the only state to declare an emergency. If successful, Kurisu says, other states could replicate the model.

The strategy has its critics. On the television program “E Hana Kakou,” Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, expressed concern over the use of emergency proclamations for a systemic issue like homelessness, arguing that the tactic gives Hawaii’s government too much leeway and does little to fix the larger problem, which he says is an ineffective state government.

What Are We Doing to Fix Hawai‘i’s Homeless Crisis?

The Aloha State now has the highest number of homeless per capita in the nation. What are we doing to help the individuals and families living on the streets?

By Mary Vorsino


(page 1 of 3)

In January, homeless service providers counted more than 400 people living in this encampment in Kaka‘ako, near the Children’s Discovery Center.
Photos: Odeelo Dayondon


April Fuiava was working at the front desk of a Waikīkī Hotel, her husband was a day laborer and the two were making tough calls just about every day. With seven kids, money was always tight. After the rent was paid—$2,000 for an apartment in ‘Ālewa Heights—there wasn’t much for anything else. Buy groceries or keep the lights on. Pay the vehicle registration or fill up the cars with gas. “Some days, we wouldn’t have food,” Fuiava says. But even though things were bad, things were never that bad, and the 36-year-old never imagined she’d end up where she did—her family homeless, living in a van and an SUV parked most days along Kapālama Canal.


It’s been a year since the Fuiavas moved onto the streets. Their landlord decided to sell, and they couldn’t afford to move into a new place. They thought living in their vehicles would be temporary, just until they saved up enough for a rental deposit. But weeks stretched into months. Fuiava lost her job because she couldn’t get to work on time. Her husband’s casual work also dried up and, for a while, they were living on the proceeds of his recycling only. He finally found a full-time job, earning just above minimum wage.


SEE ALSO: Photo Essay: What Do You Do When the Homeless Man on the Street is Your Father?


“We never thought this was going to happen to us. To be living like this is inhumane,” says Fuiava, standing outside of her van on a hot Saturday afternoon. The family is at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park, where Fuiava and her husband, Fuamete, are meeting up with a social service agency in hopes of getting help covering their vehicle registration and safety check. An illegal car on the streets is a liability the family can’t afford. While the parents wait, most of the kids have snatched up the chance to play in the park, but two of the little ones stay in the van for a nap.


The couple’s oldest is a 16-year-old boy; their youngest is 2. And there’s another one on the way. “My kids are like, when are we going to get a place?” Fuiava says. “Being homeless, it’s humbled me. I never pictured myself here.”


Left: Seifina Selifis, 38, poses with her two children, 7-year-old Asfin and 9-month-old Jalefin. The family has been on the streets since September,  struggling to save enough money for a place to rent. Seifina works the graveyard shift at a McDonald’s in Kāne‘ohe; her husband, MJ, works during the day at McKinley Car Wash and watches the kids at night.
Right: In January, a homeless encampment in Kaka‘ako was growing so large it felt like a small community. Kids rode bikes up and down the side streets; parents arrived home in the late afternoon and started to prepare dinner.


Hawai‘i is known for its beaches, its culture and, increasingly, its homeless crisis. Today, the state has the highest number of homeless per capita in the nation, with nearly 45 homeless for every 10,000 people, compared to 19 nationally. The situation has attracted national headlines and dominated the attention of local lawmakers.


The most visible response from local officials has been to take a hard line when it comes to the unsheltered homeless, moving them out of neighborhoods with new, specifically written laws in an approach Mayor Kirk Caldwell has dubbed “compassionate disruption.” In recent months, his administration has kicked up enforcement of a sit-lie ban for sidewalks and regularly conducted homeless sweeps to move encampments off public land. Critics of the approach say it makes it harder to help the homeless, whose ranks continue to grow.


Statewide in fiscal year 2014, nearly 14,300 Hawai‘i residents accessed homeless-shelter or outreach services, up 30 percent from 2007. Meanwhile, the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless counted in the state’s annual “point in time” survey has grown to nearly 7,000, up by about 14 percent since 2007.


Fortunately, “disrupting” the homeless isn’t the only strategy being pursued by local government. The state and city are partnering with homeless-service providers to roll out a system to triage the homeless population, getting help to those in greatest need; they’re also launching new programs aimed at getting the homeless into permanent housing quicker, and embarking on projects to build truly affordable housing, from micro-apartments to “tiny homes” and units built out of shipping containers. Will these tactics work?


Click on graphic to enlarge.
Source: Mental Health Kōkua


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