Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele believes his state lease on more than 55 acres of Waimanalo land provides a Hawaiian-based road map for ending escalating tensions over the homeless encampment next to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor known as Pu‘uhonua o Waianae.
“We are the perfect example,” Kanahele, 63, said Friday as he offered a tour of the spectacular parcel of land that his nonprofit organization — Aloha First — has turned into Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo. “What the state did 24 years ago for us, they gotta do for them.”
The names Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo and Pu‘uhonua o Waianae are not a coincidence.
“Pu‘uohonua” means “refuge” and Kanahele has been working with the leader of the Waianae encampment — Twinkle Borge — for nearly three years on how to create her own nonprofit organization. He said he’s also been educating Borge and the encampment’s other leaders on Native Hawaiian rights and issues.
“We’re an example,” Kanahele said. “It can work. Get ’em one land like us. Auntie Twinkles and the people of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae is ready to take on the responsibility.”
For 15 months between 1993 and 1994, Kanahele led an occupation of Makapuu Beach Park that included 300 people, mostly Native Hawaiians.
“Everybody was homeless, brah,” Kanahele, head of the sovereignty group Nation of Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
A frustrated then-Mayor Frank Fasi ordered the water turned off to the bathrooms and finally had the water controls covered in concrete when the members of the beach park occupation kept turning the water back on.
Finally, as the occupation generated international attention and tensions grew high, in 1994 Kanahele signed a 55-year lease on undeveloped, state-owned mauka lands for $3,000 per year, or $250 per month.
The newly relocated residents hacked away at the overgrown land and today, 24 years later, 80 people live in 20 houses that are powered by Hawaiian Electric Co.
Water comes from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. The city picks up trash in a communal dumpster. Septic tanks and leach fields take care of human waste. And many of the homes are connected to satellite television dishes.
Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo is now awaiting a shipment of 10 dome houses from Japan; is working to develop more efficient energy systems; is trying to turn hydroponic fish effluent into a moneymaking business; has its own medical marijuana clinic; and is preparing to launch its own cryptocurrency in Japan called “Aloha Coin.”
“This is people who had nothing. They were homeless,” Kanahele said.
“We reinvented ourselves,” said Kanahele’s nephew, Brandon Maka‘awa‘awa.
Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo regularly attracts hundreds of people for cultural events, and a delegation from Japan just visited on Dec. 7 — the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and left a statue of the mythical three-legged crow known as Yatagarasu as an offering of peace.
“They visited us instead of going to Pearl Harbor,” Maka‘awa‘awa said. “It was hooponopono (reconciliation and forgiveness). They want peace.”
Kanahele’s sister, Amy, is buried on the land, along with more than 200 iwi, or ancient Hawaiian remains, that had once been stored in Bishop Museum.
Each household in Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo pays $200 to $250 per month for all of their infrastructure expenses, depending on how many people are in each home.
“For Auntie Twinkles and them,” Kanahele said, “this is a no-brainer.”
In a statement last week, Borge said 200 to 250 people live at Pu‘uhonua o Waianae at any given time.
“The vast majority are local people, and well over half are Native Hawaiian,” Borge wrote.
The longtime Waianae encampment next door to the boat harbor was once viewed as a model of what government-sanctioned “safe zones” could look like. But concerns over reported vandalism, hygiene, refuse, a significant spike in water usage, and damage to environmental and cultural resources on the 19.5 acres of state Department of Land and Natural Resources land beneath the encampment has renewed discussion about sweeping it and relocating the occupants.
Last week in response, Borge said she would open Pu‘uhonua o Waianae to public tours on Feb. 25.
“We want a dialogue with the people making decisions about our future,” Borge wrote in a statement. “We don’t want a sweep with only a few days’ notice. We want to keep our ohana together as much as possible. We want to share the solutions we’ve come up with to help other houseless people. We are open to exploring all options, including new locations.”
DLNR officials are considering proposing rules for Pu‘uhonua o Waianae that could go before the Board of Land and Natural Resources as soon as the board’s March meeting.
Lawmakers sponsored a bill that would have protected the encampment from being swept, but the measure was tabled last week because of discussions with Gov. David Ige’s office about relocating the residents. The governor’s coordinator on homelessness said there was no plan for an immediate sweep.
Even state officials who are worried about the boat harbor’s water bill and cultural and environmental damage acknowledge that Borge has brought order to the encampment while emphasizing education for the children who live in Pu‘uhonua o Waianae.
“Every resident is expected to perform hours of community service each month,” Borge wrote in her statement. “We often prepare food and serve it to houseless people as far away as Waipahu and Wahiawa, to share some of what we have been blessed with.”
Hard work ahead
If they get a lease similar to the one offered to Kanahele’s group, the residents of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae likely will face hard work clearing undeveloped state land.
“We started from scratch, brah,” Kanahele said. “We was in the forest, mud and rain and mosquitoes. We had to cut back all of that. It was bad. One of the worst places to clear. But we got it done.”
Kanahele said county and state officials can make it easier on the residents of Pu‘uhonua o Waianae who might relocate to newly leased land by immediately providing portable toilets and quickly approving permits that would connect them to water and power.
But the people of Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo have never been afraid of hard work and continue to shape the land — nowadays using front-end loaders and other heavy equipment — to create more foundations for future houses and buildings.
On Friday, Kenani Gramberg, Adam Horswill and three of their six children groomed a taro patch at Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo even though they live outside on Hawaiian Home Lands.
They hope to build a place of their own in Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo someday soon, but relish the chance to have their children tend the land in the meantime to support their plant-based diets.
Horswill said it’s “super, super good” to connect his children directly to the food that they eat.
Gramberg said that being in Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo feels good for both the children and the adults.
She worked up a sweat while simultaneously planting taro and holding her 1-year-old, Kaiehu, and said:
“It’s like being a servant to the land.”