After 10 years on the streets of the Waikiki area and 202 days in the city’s new transitional housing community on Sand Island, the last of the original clients to enter Hale Mauliola moved out last week and into a new apartment in McCully.
Clayton “Uncle Clay” Gohier, a 75-year-old Waikiki beachboy, and his wife, Verena, 57, considered their turn of fortune last week as they waited in their one-bedroom, 506-square-foot apartment for a truckload of donated furniture to arrive from Helping Hands Hawaii.
Asked what it’s been like to wake up in the first place of his own in a decade, Uncle Clay said, “It’s beautiful. This is a place I can call our home. We were on the street for a long time.”
Verena, an admitted neat freak, busily organized linens, wiped down jalousies and prepped the apartment for the arrival of a dinette set, bed, chairs and kitchen tools.
“I love it,” Verena declared. “I get to clean up my own house and scrub everything. I never did that for years.”
Clay said that selecting their furniture at Helping Hands “was like being a kid again pointing at stuff in a crack seed store.”
The Gohiers represent the last of Hale Mauliola’s original 38 clients who moved in between November and January to join the city’s first attempt at building a transitional community for homeless people out of refurbished shipping containers.
Since opening, Hale Mauliola has housed 214 homeless adults and couples — and their pets, for the first time — in 25 shipping containers.
Some 96 of them have since moved into “stable and/or permanent housing,” said Kimo Carvalho, spokesman for the Institute for Human Services, which runs Hale Mauliola on a contract with the city.
Another 54 clients left Hale Mauliola on their own. Of them, 38 “simply abandoned their units,” and 16 ended up back on the street, Carvalho said.
This week 64 people were living in Hale Mauliola. The typical client spends an average of 60 days there. The shortest stay to date has been 14 days.
But people, like the Gohiers, with severe money problems represent the biggest challenge in moving out of Hale Mauliola and into a permanent home, Carvalho said.
Carvalho grew up helping Clay Gohier and other beachboys in Waikiki and considers him a calabash uncle.
Gohier is a colon cancer survivor and recently had an operation on a badly infected leg. He collects $700 per month in disability payments and $200 per month in food assistance. Verena Gohier collects $300 per month in food assistance.
There’s no way they could afford even a studio apartment near Waikiki, so their only hope was the city’s Housing First program, which requires them to pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent. The city pays the balance on their $1,250-per-month apartment for up to two years.
The idea is that the Gohiers will eventually be able to save enough money for an apartment they can afford on their own.
Given their limited income, Carvalho acknowledged that it will be a struggle to keep the Gohiers housed once their Housing First agreement ends.
“We have these Uncle Clays of our community on fixed incomes that are so low while rents are going up that they’re going to end up homeless, and that’s not fair to them,” Carvalho said.
To help people like the Gohiers, First Hawaiian Bank will begin teaching budgeting skills and financial management courses at Hale Mauliola at no cost to residents, starting Sept. 7.
Uncle Clay, who is three-quarters Hawaiian, grew up in Windward Oahu and never got beyond the seventh grade. “I liked the water so much,” he said by way of explanation.
He loves taking tourists on outrigger canoe rides in Waikiki, but ended up living in his Ford Windstar van, which he eventually had to sell.
Like many of Oahu’s homeless, he had zero interest in entering a homeless shelter, so he spent 10 years crashing on friends’ couches but mostly slept outside around the Kapahulu area.
“I couldn’t pay rent,” he said. “No mo’ money.”
Then last year he reached out to Carvalho after seeing him in news reports talking about the nation’s highest per-capita rate of homelessness.
“I said, ‘I know that guy,’” Gohier remembered. “Nobody had helped me but Kimo.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell has emphasized that Hale Mauliola is much more than a collection of shipping containers to house people.
On-site social service workers from IHS work with Hale Mauliola’s residents through a concept known as a “navigation center” to find permanent housing while often dealing with a range of problems — from substance abuse to physical abuse to an all-too-common inability to keep up with the high cost of living in Hawaii.
After he and Verena were placed in Hale Mauliola as part of the original wave of clients, Clay became a favorite of Caldwell whenever the mayor visited.
Last week Clay proudly showed off the potted lai (ti) plant Caldwell gave him, which now sits in his living room.
The mayor’s office said the plant symbolizes “good luck, protection and healing” and hinted that it also represents the 10 years that Uncle Clay spent on the street.
The plant, Caldwell spokesman Jay Parasco said, “survives and thrives in hot and cold climates, rain or shine.”
In a statement, Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “Hale Mauliola was created as Hawaii’s first Housing Navigation Center in order to place people like Uncle Clay and Auntie Verena into permanent housing. Different people have different needs, and it takes an entire team — government, nonprofit and private sector — working together to navigate each client into housing. After years of living unsheltered, the Gohiers took a leap of faith and came to Hale Mauliola. Today, they have a home.”
Gracie Suaglar, an IHS housing specialist, continues to work with the Gohiers and said Uncle Clay’s health scares helped motivate him to get off the street.
“He said if something happened to Uncle, he wanted his wife to have a safe place to call home,” Suaglar said.
Clay has since reconnected with some of the homeless people he used to see in Waikiki, and they’re curious about life in Hale Mauliola, which he highly recommends.
But he’s both realistic and optimistic about whether a program that worked for him will work for others who are homeless in Hawaii.
“Some people you can get off the street,” he said. “Some people you can’t. But we’re here now, and we’re going to make it work. Because I never gave up hope.”