Within a few weeks the first homeless families are expected to move into newly renovated rental apartments in the heart of urban Honolulu as the city continues to find homes for people living on the street.
The city bought the former site of Island Paradise School — and later Loveland Academy — at the corner of Piikoi and Hassinger streets for $6 million in November 2015.
It then spent another $6.4 million to convert the adjacent two- and three-story buildings into 42 studio to three-bedroom apartments.
Turning the empty school buildings into rental apartments for homeless families is part of a much larger push by Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration to clear the streets of Oahu’s homeless.
The city is currently working with the state on a separate project to house 30 chronically homeless people in the city’s Winston Hale and Pauahi Hale housing projects in Chinatown by June.
And two months ago the city filled up a three-story, 24-unit apartment building on Beretania Street with 81 homeless people, including 42 children, most of whom are in elementary school or younger. The city spent $6.9 million to buy the building at 1727 S. Beretania St., which is across the street from Central Union Church near former President Barack Obama’s boyhood home.
While each building and tenant is different, each program follows the Housing First model, getting people into permanent housing regardless of any problems they might have — including mental illness and substance abuse.
At the Piikoi project, as it’s now called, tenants will pay one-third of their monthly rent, usually through government aid. Rental prices range from $880 per month for a studio to $1,300 for a three-bedroom unit.
Previous approaches to providing housing for those who can least afford it “focused a lot on funding new shelters,” said Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, a former state legislator who attended Monday’s blessing of the Piikoi project. “We realized that just isn’t a model that works to help people succeed and to move on to better lives.”
Using the Housing First model under Caldwell, Pine said, “we’ll be building and promoting places of hope to live, where you can have your own key and lock your own door.”
But neighbors have pushed back against the Piikoi project — or more precisely the new tenants who will live in the buildings.
Caldwell not only thanked the Honolulu City Council for providing funding to buy buildings to house the homeless, but also for calling for a community advisory committee around the Piikoi project to “address the concerns of the community,” he said. “We understand people get worried when we talk about bringing homelessness into any community. It’s incumbent on us … to address those concerns.”
While city officials have sometimes been blasted at neighborhood board meetings over the Piikoi project, it’s now up to property manager Housing Solutions Inc. to address neighbors’ fears.
“It happens everywhere on every project,” said Terry Brooks, president and principal broker for Housing Solutions Inc., which also manages the Beretania Street project for the city.
A resident manager, who is also a trained social worker who has worked with the homeless, will be living in one of the ground-floor apartments.
The resident manager’s approach to neighbors will be the same advice she’ll give to the new tenants, said Gaye Johnston, Housing Solutions vice president:
“Consideration,” Johnston said. “Be a good neighbor.”
Across from the 24-unit Beretania Street project, Central Union Church has pushed back against the Not in My Back Yard syndrome with an effort it calls “Yes in My Back Yard.”
“The NIMBY reaction is so widespread in many communities, not just in Hawaii,” said church member Ken Harding. “This is really a positive step for our city and county to be taking. We want to be active participants.”
The church organized two separate donations of new and used household items it called “aloha baskets” for the new families moving in across the street.
Church members are now thinking of different ways to make their new neighbors feel welcome.
“We tried to jump in any way that we could,” said the Rev. Brandon Duran. “The neighborhood board wasn’t welcoming, so we wanted to see how we can be good neighbors.”
“We see the aloha baskets as a great start, but I’m hoping we can do more,” Duran said. Some ideas could include programs for children who were once homeless and possibly family cooking classes on church grounds.
Caldwell and Gov. David Ige have personally asked churches to get more involved in reducing homelessness, and Caldwell appreciates the outreach by Central Union Church.
“I’m grateful for Central Union Church’s leadership in helping our tenants transition from homelessness to housing,” Caldwell said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “and I hope that other faith-based organizations follow their example in being part of the solution.”