For the first time, a hui of 17 nonprofit groups and state and federal agencies reached out to the 289 occupants of an entrenched homeless encampment at the mouth of the Waianae Small Boat Harbor on Friday to offer an array of services, but getting people to give up their ocean-side life off the grid remained a challenge.
Twinkle Borge, who is often called the unofficial mayor of the encampment, welcomed the unprecedented outreach and expressed hope that her homeless neighbors are able to get their birth certificates, government identifications, Social Security benefits and other assistance that could make life easier for them and, perhaps, lead them to seek permanent housing.
Borge looked out across a ring of canopies staffed by social service workers and agencies on the lawn that separates the encampment from nearby tennis courts and said, “It’s like one positive hug for the people.”
But like others, Borge has little intention of leaving the place she calls “Pu‘uhonua,” or place of refuge.
It’s where she’s lived for the last 13 years, and where she got sober 10 years ago.
“Some people are set in their ways,” Borge said. “For me, this is my home.”
A family of six, a couple and one other person agreed to move out of the encampment and into a shelter, according to the state homeless coordinator’s office, which organized the outreach.
In all, an estimated 150 people attended the four-hour event. People seeking services tended to visit more than one organization and collectively they added up to a total of 467 contacts.
A group of University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University student nurses provided first aid while other homeless people lined up to learn about getting help with security deposits and first and last months’ rent that could lead to a traditional home.
A community encampment
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said many of the homeless have been living in the encampment for a decade or more and he estimated that the majority grew up along the Waianae Coast.
While some suffer from mental illness and drug addiction, many others have jobs and simply lack enough money to afford a place to live, Morishige said.
The size of Pu‘uhonua rivals the notorious urban homeless encampment in Kakaako that at one point last year swelled to a population of more than 300 adults and children before it was cleaned out and reduced to a tenth of its size.
Borge said that in the last head count, the Waianae encampment of 289 people tucked among the brush included 48 children and 147 dogs.
At Pu‘uhonua, signs are posted reminding people to clean up after themselves and the occupants kick people out for stealing and other bad behavior.
Even some recent newcomers to the encampment, who asked not to be identified Friday, said they were welcomed in, given plywood and pallets to organize their living spaces and told they were expected to reciprocate by keeping their areas clean and respecting others.
Some City Council members have cited the encampment’s rules and sense of community as a model that could be emulated if the city decides to create its own city-sanctioned tent cities somewhere on Oahu, as mainland cities such as Seattle have done.
On Friday, clothes hung on lines outside the tents where Lean Kalua, 45, and Dan Estauillo, 53, have lived with their dog, Mana, for the last two years.
Estauillo, who was getting ready for work as a roofer, had turned pallets into a sturdy lanai below the couple’s tents.
Despite the relative cleanliness of the encampment, Estauillo said that life in Pu‘uhonua “is hard living.”
He has his identification and a job and didn’t really need most of the services being offered near the tennis courts.
Asked what he needs most of all, Estauillo said bluntly, “Housing.”
The land under the encampment belongs to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources and officials worry about ancient rock terraces that have disappeared; the possibility that ancient human remains — or iwi — are buried on the property; and potential harm being caused to subterranean opae ulua, or Hawaiian red shrimp, that are found only in Waianae and live in anchialine pools.
“Ultimately it’s public land being used for personal purposes,” said DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison, who attended Friday’s outreach.
Maria Vuong, community clearing house supervisor for Helping Hands Hawaii, walked through the sprawling encampment with representatives from other agencies and invited people to check out the services being offered.
It was Vuong’s first visit to the encampment and she said she was impressed by the sophistication of the structures and the air of camaraderie and order.
“They have a sense of community,” Vuong said. “It’s very clear they respect each other.”
Gregrey Kim, homeless outreach interim case manager for Waianae-based Hale Na‘au Pono — a nonprofit mental health center — has worked with clients from the encampment before and knows how difficult it is for the occupants to leave.
“When it’s as good as this,” Kim said, “they really like no move out. That’s why it’s hard to get them housing.”