LIHUE — Kauai County officials are finishing up plans for a facility to provide homeless residents with affordable housing and social services, and hope to break ground on the project next month.
In a written statement Thursday, Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami said his administration “is close to finalizing the acquisition of land and funding from the State of Hawaii for Kauai’s ‘Ohana Zone project,” and county officials are “expediting planning in an effort to begin a shovel-ready project by the end of the year.”
Kawakami said plans for the ‘Ohana Zone include “wrap-around services” to be provided by a local nonprofit organization and “permanent supportive housing,” which could make Kauai’s ‘Ohana Zone the first of its kind in the state.
State legislators appropriated $30 million last year to establish at least three ‘Ohana Zone projects at sites on Oahu, with one on Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai. Gov. David Ige signed the bill in July 2018, but according to a Nov. 5 Hawaii News Now article, the funding has so far generated no permanent housing.
The Garden Island spoke with some of Kauai’s homeless residents about the proposed project.
Mark came to Kauai as a small child over 50 years ago and has been homeless for nearly half that time. He wasn’t comfortable giving a last name because, he said, “It’s kind of embarrassing, you know? Your classmates look in the paper and see your name and think you’re a nobody.”
It’s hard being homeless, even on Kauai, Mark said, “especially in the winter when it rains.” He usually spends his nights at a church. It’s a place where he can at least rest without fear of authorities telling him to move, which is something many homeless people don’t have access to. Still, it’s not comfortable.
“We sleep right on the cement,” he said. “But they let us stay there cause we can’t sleep no other place.”
Mark was a little skeptical and expressed some concerns about how an ‘Ohana Zone would actually function with hundreds of homeless people living together inside its boundaries — “they need security around” — but mostly he was optimistic about the idea.
“We really need something,” he said. “The people need something. Definitely.”
Nelson Packard, 69, got a place to live about 10 years ago using a federal housing assistance program after nearly four decades of homelessness. He does not take it for granted.
“I can go homeless any day now,” he said. “You never know what the government’s gonna do.”
After a four-year stint in the military in 1972, Packard returned to Kauai, where he was born and raised, and said that for most of his adult life he “Sleep in the car. Sleep in the bush.” During those years he became intimately familiar with the mindset of his fellow homeless residents, many of whom, he said, may not use the ‘Ohana Zone the way government officials intended.
“I like the idea, but you cannot change people’s minds about how they want to live their life,” he said, pointing out that some people are homeless, at least in part, because they don’t like the structure and responsibilities that come with a conventional way of life, a mindset that could conflict with rules and regulations of a government-sanctioned facility.
“Some is not gonna be agreeable to anything that says ‘You have to,’” Packard said. “They don’t agree with the system.”
In Packard’s opinion, an ‘Ohana Zone would be a revolving door. He guessed that many of the homeless people who use the facility may stay during the day, but “at night they’re still gonna walk the streets.” Overall though, Packard seemed pleased with the effort.
“Better than nothing, cousin,” he said, smiling.
The homeless population on Kauai is estimated at about 400. It has, at times, come into conflict with some of the island’s other residents, who often complain about unsightly campsites and criminal activity they believe those communities generate.
A woman recently emailed TGI, hoping to bring attention to what she described as a “recent growing population of homeless” on an undeveloped plot of land along the shoreline next to Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort in Waipouli, which she says has become overrun with an encampment of homeless people that is “growing like a cancer.”
“There is a wild man running around with a machete, one man beats his son when high on drugs,” she wrote in an email last Sunday. “There’s trash everywhere, the smell is repulsive &their litter is polluting our ocean. It’s just a matter of time before disease and rats are part of this disgrace.”
Another woman also sent TGI an email about the area with the subject line, “Compassion Fatigue for Homeless.”
She said she was “appalled by the plethora of campsites” occupying the stretch of “prime real estate,” and complained that she now feels unsafe walking there alone.
The half-mile stretch of land between the Sheraton and Kauai Coast Resort was quiet on Friday afternoon. Near the Sheraton property line, two little girls played next to a small campfire near their family’s tent, where an auntie stood watching. A puppy stretched in the shade of a small tree.
The campsite was neatly kept. Litter was nowhere to be seen. Wooden, hand-painted signs posted at regular intervals on trees that lined the shore said, “Take your opala when you leave. Mahalo.” The air smelled like the sea.
A middle-aged man walked slowly along the dirt trail spanning the property, holding an infant wrapped in a colorful blanket against his chest. He gave only a first name, Kanei, and said the baby was a year old.
When told that a nearby homeowner complained of being scared to walk through the area, Kanei looked down at the baby in his arms and said, “What? This is scary?” He pulled the blanket up over his child’s shoulders.
“This is scary?” he asked again. “Just ‘cause we don’t got one home don’t make us savages.”
Further down the foot path, a young man tracing lines in the dirt with the narrow end of an old fishing pole as he walked said he probably wouldn’t use an ‘Ohana Zone, but thought it might help other homeless people.
“I think it’s one good idea,” he said. “Give people a place to be where they don’t get harassed, where they don’t get treated like outcasts.”
The guy didn’t speak much or give a name, and continued along after a minute or two. But when asked, as he walked away, what people should know about the homeless issue, he looked back over his shoulder and said “Just, you know, everyone should be treated with aloha.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.