After living in a van with his daughter — and a stint in the 270-person homeless encampment next to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor — Falaniko “Niko” Pesamino teared up Tuesday at the thought of the stability he’s found in his 1-year-old, one-bedroom home built by the city for homeless families.
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the opening of the city’s 16-unit Kauhale Kamaile project along Farrington Highway, across from Waianae High School.
The one- and two-bedroom homes are aimed at homeless families with children enrolled in Waianae schools. And parents such as Pesamino were ready Tuesday to sign new one-year leases.
“I love it,” Pesamino said. “There was no option.”
In February 2016 the city purchased the 1.1-acre parcel of overgrown land for $300,000 and spent $5 million, including the land purchase, to develop Kauhale Kamaile using 16 so-called modular units that can be moved, if necessary.
Kauhale Kamaile accepts only families who earn 50 percent or less of area medium income, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defined in 2018 as $40,850 for one person, $46,650 for two, $52,500 for a family of three and $58,300 for a family of four.
Residents pay $981 per month for a one-bedroom unit and $1,177 per month for a two-bedroom unit.
No one has been kicked out, and only two families have left — both for the mainland, said Susan Austin, development officer for Alternative Structures International, which does business as Kahumana and oversees management of Kauhale Kamaile for the city.
In October 2016 the city opened three other modular units in Waianae on Halona Road for formerly homeless tenants.
Based on the success of the Halona Road and Kauhale Kamaile projects, the city is now eyeing a similar — but even bigger — project on 2.8 acres of land in an undisclosed area of Ewa, said Sandy Pfund, director of the city’s Department of Land Management.
The Ewa project would likely use two-story “stacked housing” to house even more people who would otherwise be homeless.
“We think it’s a viable way of putting up cost-efficient units,” Pfund said. “We’re focused on permanent, affordable units.”
While the city has purchased and continues to build projects for a wide range of homeless tenants, Kauhale Kamaile sits somewhere in the middle and is aimed at homeless families specifically along the Waianae Coast, said Marc Alexander, director of the city’s Office of Housing.
He described Kauhale Kamaile as “an affordable-housing project on steroids.”
“This kind of project is still new for us,” Alexander said.
But the city has plenty of experience with neighbors pushing back on projects aimed at housing the homeless, and Kauhale Kamaile followed a similar trend.
“It was a very difficult project to get online,” said city Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who represents the area. “People were adamantly against it and rightfully so. Whenever they clear the homeless all over the island, they put them in Waianae. So there were a lot of bad memories, hard feelings.”
When the idea for the project came before the Waianae Neighborhood Board, “it was a packed house and everyone was against it,” Pine said. “I stood up and said I was for it. Everyone wanted to literally kill me. … I had to be escorted to my car.”
Designers incorporated community input, including ideas from Pine, and turned a crime-ridden lot with drug use and illegal dumping “into something beautiful,” Pine said. “We have to work together to create a community that we could support. … Elected officials around the state have to take chances, and they need to learn to lead projects in their communities without fear.”
Next door, Maluhia Lutheran Church continues to welcome the families from Kauhale Kamaile and serves them dinner twice a month.
The church installed a gate in the fence that divides the two properties and lets residents grow vegetables on church land, Austin said.
Austin hopes to raise $30,000 to create a community garden on about an acre of church land that would provide produce for the families at Kauhale Kamaile.
Pesamino, 59, would welcome any help.
He earns only $10.01 an hour working part time as a groundskeeper and janitor at Kauhale Kamaile and receives a senior citizen subsidy to help cover his rent.
He sleeps on a covered outdoor lanai while his daughter and stepdaughter — ages 13 and 21 — share the unit’s only bedroom, along with the family’s Chihuahua.
The oldest is Pesamino’s stepdaughter, who lived with her biological father until he died. At the same time, Pesamino was bouncing around the Leeward Coast with his biological daughter, who is now 13, and for a while left her to live with the family’s pastor.
After living in a van with his youngest — and trying out the Pu‘uhonua o Waianae homeless encampment next door to the Waianae Small Boat Harbor — Pesamino was desperate for a permanent home where he could live with both daughters and was referred to Kauhale Kamaile.
Before, Pesamino said, life “was very hard. Nothing ever came easy.”
Now “this is the best it’s ever been in my life and the best fit for my daughters,” Pesamino said. “I want to see my girls have a good life.”
Two units away, Sage Lalawai-Yoshida, 32, showed off her new 1-year lease that she planned to sign.
She and her four children had been living with family along the Waianae Coast before moving into a 90-day transitional housing project.
Then she found Kauhale Kamaile while pregnant with her fifth child.
Lalawai-Yoshida gets up every morning at 2 a.m. to deliver the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. She went into labor while on her route.
She came home, called an ambulance but ended up delivering the baby in her two-bedroom unit.
If it weren’t for Kauhale Kamaile, Lalawai-Yoshida said, she and her five children would “probably be homeless. Anywhere is better than being on the beach.”
But Lalawai-Yoshida said Kauhale Kamaile is not her family’s forever home.
She’s trying to get a second job to someday earn enough money to rent or buy a big house.
Her dream would include a home with enough bedrooms for all of her children.
While Kauhale Kamaile is designed as permanent housing, Austin said that for some formerly homeless families, “we hope this is a starting point … to inspire, to move up.”