Column: A new way forward for Hawaii’s homeless
For the past few years, a volunteer group called Hui Aloha has forged relationships with houseless people across Oahu.
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Vandalism, squalor, inaccessible parks, businesses on the verge of closing, dog attacks. Recent stories about homelessness have pushed our collective compassion to the limit, triggering calls for more aggressive “sweeps,” harsher punishments for “the homeless,” and rolling back civil rights. We know such measures do not solve the problem and come at a heavy price, but frustration is high and we feel we have no choice.
There is a different way. For the past few years, a volunteer group called Hui Aloha has forged relationships with houseless people across Oahu. Initially, we simply wanted to connect, listen and learn. With help from Twinkle Borge and Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae, we began to see a new opportunity: building community to solve problems together.
The work starts with “outreach” — taking coffee tent-to-tent and getting to know people. Repeat visits over a few weeks build trust. Then, we ask what positive changes people want to see in their area. Inevitably, there are already efforts underway: someone cleans the park bathrooms daily, picks up rubbish along the sidewalk, or guides others to access services.
When we find caring initiative-takers, we partner to help them engage others in camp. This results in projects like park cleanups and other efforts, led by houseless residents, benefiting both camps and the wider community.
Last fall, residents of Waimanalo Beach Park began to organize themselves. Inspired by Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae, they wrote camp rules and started a weekly park cleanup to address neighborhood concerns over litter. Today, their cleanup covers a large stretch of coastline. They’ve removed hundreds of pounds of trash including a roadside moped chop-shop and plastic pollution from area beaches. They were recently asked by an environmental nonprofit to help persuade other encampments to follow their example.
In Kakaako, residents of the mauka section of Gateway Park began a cleanup in January. When news of the distressed Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center broke, they expanded their cleanup to the center, and persuaded other houseless people to move away from it, avoiding the need for a city “sweep.” They now want to establish a neighborhood watch to address concerns over crime.
Hui Aloha supports these efforts: providing tips on community-building; buying trash bags, gloves and food for gatherings; helping facilitate community meetings; encouraging connections with neighborhood boards, Honolulu Police Department and others.
By building upon the initiative of houseless people, we find there’s a better chance to address the things that frustrate all of us.
The work is not a panacea. In Waimanalo, one individual fights violently with his family. Park leaders have called police, but he’s been released from jail within a few days each time.
The publicized dog attack in Kakaako was the fault of someone who did not want to be part of the community-building effort, and moved back near the Discovery Center.
Camp leaders struggle with such situations, and institutions are often unable to help. Still, there’s a better chance of tackling these challenges with partners in a camp.
Often, community can be a better solution than new laws or programs. It’s cheaper than private security or “sweeping” people down the road. It can also be more effective because community relationships provide the healing, hope and purpose that people need to thrive.
Now, community-building may get space to flourish. The lieutenant governor’s proposed “kauhale housing,” village clusters of tiny homes, is a good fit for people who are trying to build community in camps.
From this work, and from Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae, we’ve learned that it’s often those with the least, who engage in the greatest acts of aloha. We’ve learned the importance of building relationships first. And, we’ve come to believe that building community, and not just housing, may be the key to making Hawaii a truly affordable and sustainable home for people invested in its future.
James Koshiba is a local policy researcher, consultant and social entrepreneur. He volunteers with Hui Aloha.