Tents outside Community Aquatic Center in Kona where 20 local people lived before their move into a HOPE Services shelter. (Photo courtesy of HOPE Services Hawaii)

Hawaii Catholic Herald

KAILUA-KONA — Twenty longtime Hawaii residents moved into HOPE Services shelters last month, receiving a reprieve from life without a roof, running water or safety.

The residents had pitched 11 tents outside the Kona Community Aquatic Center. They told outreach workers they had previously taken refuge in the bushes at the Old Kona Airport Park, but were forced out when the county performed a sweep of the park ahead of a concert earlier last month. Without help finding shelter, the residents moved down the road, relocating to the area just outside the community pool.

Soon after, the calls began.

“We started receiving calls and emails from the county, business owners, and concerned citizens asking us to help these folks,” said HOPE Outreach Team Lead Carrie Hoopii. “The county called a meeting, and asked if we could offer them shelter. Our shelters were already pretty full, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to find space for everyone, but I told them we would try.”

HOPE operates two emergency shelters in West Hawaii: the West Hawaii Emergency Housing Program on Pawai Place, which hosts individuals, and Ka Lamaku, the village of 18 freestanding micro-shelters located at the old airport park.

Because Ka Lamaku’s units each have space for two adults, some of the single residents volunteered to move to the West Hawai’i Emergency Housing Program to make space for the couples from the group. Employees at both shelters quickly made arrangements to free up as much space as possible and welcome the incoming residents.

“I knew my team and I would need help moving that many people into shelter at once, so I put out the call for help from our partners,” said Hoopii.

Hoopii’s call was answered by six employees from the County of Hawaii, two outreach workers from CARE Hawaii, three community policing officers, and longtime volunteer Linda Vandervoort. The team spent all day Thursday assisting with intakes and move-ins, and returned Friday to finish.

By the end of the day, all 20 residents had moved in.

Hoopii expressed gratitude for those who helped. “We never know when we are going to encounter something like this. Our team wouldn’t have been able to help all the people this quickly on our own. We are so grateful to the community members who were willing to come out and help.”

During the intake process the team learned that all 20 individuals were local island residents. Fourteen identified as Native Hawaiian, four as Caucasian, and two as African-American. Most had lost their homes because the rent had become unaffordable, or as a result of family issues.

HOPE’s CEO Brandee Menino says this doesn’t surprise her.

“County data shows that 96% of people who received homeless services last year were Hawaii locals. We’re talking people born and raised here, and long term residents,” Menino said. “I’ve run into old friends who are living in their cars.”

“People are starting to realize the problem isn’t houseless people flying in from outside, it’s housing speculation from outside. That’s what is pricing locals out and pushing them to the streets.”

Of all homes sold in Hawaii County from 2017 to 2020, 42% were purchased by out-of-state investors, the highest rate among the counties, according to the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center. What’s more, the center reports that “52% of out-of-state owners left their units unoccupied when they or their friends were not using them.”

“We do what we can, but as a private organization dependent on government funding and donations, we don’t have the authority to regulate the housing market,” said Menino. “However, we are grateful for the county’s recent commitment to allocate additional funding to county-sponsored homeless programs and affordable housing.”

“We hope we’ll see a commitment to responsibly funding evidence-based programs that successfully get people into permanent housing,” she said. “We’d love to see our county move away from expecting police to handle houselessness, and instead invest in expanding the number of trained social services staff who can assist people on the streets.”

Hoopii agreed. “Most of the people we help are our neighbors, born and raised here. Instead of pushing them from place to place on the streets, we should work together to get them back into housing. I’m proud of the people who recognized that this week. Together, we brought 20 people closer to home.”

HOPE Services Hawaii is an affiliate non-profit organization of the Catholic Church in Hawaii, providing housing-focused services including outreach, emergency shelter and affordable housing to make homelessness on Hawaii Island rare, brief and nonrecurring.

If you would like to help your neighbors on their journey out of homelessness, you can make a donation at hopeserviceshawaii.org/donate. To keep up to date, follow HOPE Services on Facebook and Instagram @hopeserviceshawaii.