Community: Fresh Start

Could the state’s new approach to homelessness on the Leeward Coast end the problem once and for all?

Last July, Gov. Linda Lingle declared the homeless situation on the Leeward Coast an emergency. Within the previous two years, the problem had become impossible to ignore—between 850 and 2,500 people, including whole families, were living along 16 miles of beach.

Lingle’s proclamation allowed the state to create shelters quickly by bypassing bureaucratic processes such as procurement and permitting. Since then, the state has opened its first emergency shelter on the Leeward Coast and, as we went to press, was close to opening a second. The two facilities will house 500 people.

This young family lived out of their small, beat-up pick-up truck for six months before moving to Onelau‘ena, an emergency shelter in Wai‘anae, in December. photo: Sergio Goes

But rather than simply giving people a place to crash for the night, the state wants to move people from the beach, through emergency and transitional shelters and, ultimately, into permanent housing.

“The old paradigm of house ’em, feed ’em obviously wasn’t working,” says Kaulana Park, the state’s homeless solutions team coordinator. “We had to move beyond that.”

The state’s long-term strategy includes three major phases:

    • First, emergency shelters for people coming off Leeward Coast beaches. In addition to getting food and shelter, people will work with case managers to receive job training, basic education and health services.

    • After a maximum of one year, residents move on to transitional housing. Over two years, they’ll participate in additional programs aimed at job stability and financial independence.

    • Residents who do well in transitional housing move on to permanent housing—public housing or affordable rentals, for instance. By then, they should have finished any drug programs and obtained stable jobs.

From the start, residents must take responsibility, says Kanani Bulawan, executive director of Wai‘anae Community Outreach. The agency operates the emergency shelter known as Onelau‘ena. At the three-story converted military building in Kalaeloa, residents earn their keep by attending courses, meeting with caseworers and doing chores. In return, they get “village bucks” to cover “rent.”

“We don’t give them a handout, we give them a hand up,” Bulawan says.

As people start their years-long transition from beaches into homes of their own, the clock is also ticking for the state to ensure they’ll have somewhere to go. In addition to the Wai‘anae Civic Center emergency shelter, two more projects are in the works—a transitional shelter scheduled to break ground this summer and Ma‘ili Village, the state’s most ambitious project yet. The $34-million plan will produce 80 transitional units and 240 affordable rentals on

30 acres of federal land. It’s also the state’s first proposal for permanent low-cost housing in the area, with one- to four-bedroom units renting for $400 to $600 a month. Rental units should become available by the end of 2008, while transitional units should open a year earlier.

“It’s still probably not enough to address the entire homeless population on the Wai‘anae Coast, so we still have a few more projects in the hopper,” says Park. The state is also looking at new ways to prevent homeless-ness, including providing housing stipends to families on the verge of becoming homeless.

“People are coming off the beach, but it’s just the beginning,” Park says. “We hope that the Leeward Coast can be a model for other areas.”