On the heels of the apparent halt of Kilauea’s eruption earlier this month comes more good news for the Big Island: Its emergency shelter population has dwindled.
Shelter occupancy was down to 45 individuals as of Wednesday, down from 180 in mid-July and a drastic decrease from a peak of around 550 in May and June when the eruption, which eventually destroyed about 720 homes, started.
On Wednesday, Hawaii County announced that its emergency shelter in Pahoa will close Sept. 17. A secondary shelter in Keaau closed last week.
Disaster response officials say the progress is gratifying as it indicates people are getting their lives back in order.
“It’s a sense of relief because people went through a very bad time, and now we’re really seeing some successes here,” said Roxcie Waltjen, director of the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation, who has been overseeing shelter operations.
Some returned to their homes once roadblocks and checkpoints ended; more followed once the level of sulfur dioxide dropped after lava subsided from fissure 8 inside the Leilani Estates subdivision.
There have also been immense efforts from local and federal government agencies, nonprofits, community members and others to help re-house people displaced by the natural disaster that began May 3.
One of the biggest contributors was the U.S. Small Business Administration, which earlier this month announced it approved $18.5 million for homeowners to replace, repair or rebuild primary residences damaged by or lost to the eruption.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also shouldered a big part of this work, providing $2.7 million in rental assistance grants to 519 property owners and 334 renters.
Hope Services Hawaii Inc., a Hilo-based nonprofit, helped deliver 20 “micro-housing” units built by volunteers on Sacred Heart Catholic Church property in Pahoa. Seniors and families with children began moving into the 120-square-foot modules built around communal kitchens and bathrooms on July 3.
Eleven similar tiny homes are slated to open next week at Hawaiian Paradise Park as part of a project called Hale Iki Village led by Connect Point Church.
Other organizations that contributed to the re-housing effort directly or indirectly were the Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross, which provided about $300,000 in financial assistance, the Hawaii Community Foundation, which provided about $160,000 in grants to organizations providing relief assistance, and Neighborhood Place of Puna, which helped charitable groups route financial aid to more than 170 households affected by lava.
Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place, said his organization mainly provided assistance for housing but also paid for one-way plane tickets for those who preferred to leave the island. Neighborhood Place provided 25 households with airline tickets and 121 such requests are still pending. The nonprofit still has 1,600 outstanding requests for assistance, of which 427 are related to housing.
“There is still a big need for housing,” Normann said.
Some of the assistance needs are for people still in the shelter, but some are for those living with family, friends or other temporary settings.
Waltjen said a challenge is being able to afford replacement housing because living in Puna generally cost less than than in Hilo or other more urban communities.
“There is no one solution for everybody,” she said. “People have different needs or hurdles or issues to work through.”
Jack “Nova” DeShincoe was among the hundreds who sought refuge in a shelter, then received help with more permanent housing.
DeShincoe, 74, earned a living partly as an artist and was a caretaker on a 27-acre Pahoa fruit tree farm that was buried by lava. He spent 70 days living in the shelter at the Pahoa Community Center and District Park.
DeShincoe, who also receives Social Security income, had paid $300 a month to live in a “screen-house” on the farm. Finding something simililarly affordable was difficult.
“I did not know where to go,” he said.
As a disabled Army veteran, DeShincoe connected with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs through social workers at a disaster recovery assistance center set up by the county. FEMA also chipped in for housing expenses.
DeShincoe received gas cards, initial rent and deposit money for a Hilo apartment along with new household goods.
“It was phenomenal what was available,” he said.
DeShincoe gratefully accepted all of it because execept for some personal possessions and a stack of his paintings, he had left everything behind on the farm.
The new apartment costs $725 a month. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development helps pay the rent. Without that help, DeShincoe said he’d probably still be in the shelter or living in his car.
“I am stoked to be here,” he said.
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