PAHOA, Hawaii >> Richard Anderson gets up before sunrise and makes coffee on his portable stove, powered by a battery charged up from a solar panel at the edge of a soccer field in Pahoa.
Next to the stove is his three-bedroom tent where the 57-year-old lives with his wife, Milagros, 63, and their three cats and two dogs.
Later in the morning, Anderson checks on his new neighbors — other displaced residents from the Lower Puna area — living in tents around the field at the Pahoa Community Center, where the Hawaii Red Cross has opened an emergency shelter for residents displaced by Kilauea Volcano’s eruption.
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Downhill from the soccer field, hundreds of other evacuees are staying within the blue chicken-wire-type walls of Pahoa gym that allow air to flow through the building. Many were part of a mandatory evacuation because of Kilauea’s eruption that displaced about 1,800 residents from the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions.
Others voluntarily left their Lower Puna homes because of the volcanic activity, and some were reportedly homeless before the disaster began.
About 230 people were using the shelter Tuesday, a Hawaii Red Cross spokeswoman said, and an unknown number of residents were “tenting,” or staying in dozens of tents erected outside the gym, in the parking lot and around the athletic fields.
Amy Hegy, spokeswoman for the Pahoa shelter, said its setup, with so many residents staying in tents outside, was unusual for an emergency shelter but that it matched the rural character of the community.
“We want people to feel comfortable where they are so that people feel comfortable in the space of an uncomfortable situation,” she said.
Hegy, a Red Cross volunteer, has been a part of about 30 disaster responses around the country, including for tornadoes, ice storms, a plane crash into a neighborhood, hurricanes and wildfires.
She said the shelter doesn’t require identification because people can evacuate without paperwork, and it doesn’t turn anyone away if they say they have been affected by the disaster. The shelter does, however, have security and uses wristbands to identify residents.
Homeless seek shelter
But some residents complained that allowing anyone to stay in the shelter opens the doors to longtime homeless people who may not have been evacuated by the disaster.
Paul Valles, a Leilani Estates resident, said he doesn’t feel the shelter is safe for his boys, ages 9 and 10, because of some of the questionable behavior he’s seen from others at the shelter. He said one woman also was seen going through his belongings in his tent inside the gym.
His wife, Sharlene Salazar, said she’s heard strange men talking sexually about women within earshot of her children.
“I feel violated,” she said.
Hegy said homeless people coming into a long-term emergency shelter is common in other disasters but noted the shelter is an evacuation shelter, not a homeless shelter. She said the Red Cross doesn’t turn away anyone, because a homeless person living in a tent on a street can be affected by volcanic activity. She said the Red Cross works to help all shelter residents improve their circumstances, including the homeless.
She added there are caseworkers to work with each individual or family to help them overcome any barriers to taking the next step to recovery.
Del Pranke, 75, said his Luana Street home in Leilani Estates was covered by lava, leaving him, his landlord and a housemate homeless.
“I’m not sure how long we’re going to be here,” said Pranke as he sat with his small dog, Kai, while eating a sandwich provided by the Salvation Army for lunch.
He was depressed after losing his house and sleeping most of the day in the gym.
On Tuesday afternoon, he said, the nurse “sat and poked at me until I got up” to eat.
RESIDENTS HELP OUT
Avani Love of Leilani Estates was staying at the shelter with her 5-year-old daughter, Kairie, and three sons, Kana, 9, Kapila, 7, and Nimai, 2. She said Kapila had his seventh birthday at the shelter recently, and the shelter threw a party with six cakes and McDonald’s for all the residents.
“It’s actually been pretty neat,” she said, adding that residents often help out each other.
Irvin Russell Pelton Jr., a Kona resident, was staying at the shelter, where he set up a barbershop for residents. He pointed to the sky when asked why he was doing it and added that his super-size teddy bear, named Tiny, gives free hugs, his dog gives free petting sessions and he gives free haircuts.
When the Andersons, who were camped near the soccer field, arrived at the shelter after being evacuated, they had only a tarp and a truck and stayed downhill from the gym because their dogs don’t get along with other dogs.
Richard Anderson said the shelter’s security told him he could move to the soccer field where they would have more space.
Then while Anderson was trying to buy new poles to fix his old tent, a woman working at Sears in Hilo couldn’t find the right kind of poles and called up someone who gave her the three-bedroom tent that the Andersons are living in now.
He said people come by to make sure they are fed, and the shelter community has even set up a neighborhood watch.
He praised the Red Cross for how they’ve run the shelter.
“They’re like the calming influence for everything,” he said.