A group of priests at the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii’s convention next month will be urging delegates to adopt a resolution to encourage each Episcopal parish in the state to house as least one homeless family in its church yard.

And if that’s impossible, to provide sleeping space in its church hall or a place in its parking lot for a homeless family to camp or to offer supplemental rent assistance to help a family move into housing.

“Many families need just $200 to $300 a month more to be able to afford to rent a place,” says Father David Gierlach, the rector of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Kalihi.

In the resolution, Hawaii’s 37 Episcopal congregations will be asked — if they can’t provide housing assistance — to help in any other way that’s possible such as serving hot meals or offering bathroom and shower services to the homeless, or money and soap to help them do their laundry, or Internet access.

Rev. David Gierlach. St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Kalihi. 20 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Father David Gierlach at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Kalihi. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gierlach is one of the church leaders behind the upcoming proposal to be introduced at the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii convention at Iolani School on Oct. 23-24.

“We will not be asking a church to assist 50 or 100 or 1,000 people, just one family. I hope every church will take the next step,” says Gierlach. “This is what we are called to do as Christians.”

“Many families need just $200 to $300 a month more to be able to afford to rent a place.” — Father David Gierlach, St. Elizabeth’s Church in Kalihi

Mayor Kirk Caldwell this summer asked a group of Oahu church leaders to do the same thing: house some homeless at their churches.

But the mayor said in a recent interview on Hawaii Public Radio that the pastors did not warm up to the idea.

Gierlach says the call is similar to what Pope Francis did with his request to each Catholic parish in Europe to house a refugee family from the Middle East.

Father Brian Grieves, a retired Episcopal priest in change of social justice ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii, is working with Gierlach and others on the resolution.

Sending Government a Message

Grieves says the purpose is twofold: to offer ideas to Episcopal parishes that are eager to help but unsure of how to begin, and also to put the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii on record as wanting government agencies to do a better job of addressing the larger societal causes of homelessness.

He says the goal is to send a message to elected state and county officials to stop beating around the bush and move forward with meaningful legislation to create the thousands of affordable rental units needed by Hawaii residents.

“The problem is huge yet government officials still seem to be at loggerheads about how to solve it,” says Grieves.

For 75 days, Gierlach hosted a homeless family at St. Elizabeth’s in a converted shipping container on the church grounds.

He says the two adults and their three young children became homeless after the adults had a falling out with relatives with whom they were staying. At the same time the father of the family lost his job at a car repair shop.

Gierlach says the family has since found housing and jobs and moved out of the container and into an apartment.

Residents left, Augustine Pannell and right, Marie Kane stand in the doorway of the micro home located at St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church parking lot.  homeless. 20 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Augustine Pannell and Marie Kane live in the converted shipping container in the St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church parking lot. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He says by providing temporary housing, churches can provide homeless families the stability they need to connect with social service agencies to help them get jobs and more permanent housing

Gierlach says from five to 15 people sleep under the carport at St. Elizabeth’s or under the ledges of church buildings each night; some of them were uprooted by the city’s sweeps in Waikiki and Chinatown.

Now a homeless couple has moved into the refurbished shipping container.

The container was created by the nonprofit organization Faith Action for Community Equity. The public became familiar with the structure in February when it was rolled out with great fanfare at Honolulu Hale, where it was kept on display for a week.

After that, FACE moved the refurbished container for a series of one-week stays to 10 different Oahu churches, including St. Elizabeth’s.

Rev. Bob Nakata, FACE housing co-chair, says the goal was to introduce people to the idea that a shipping container can be transformed at minimal cost into comfortable emergency shelters for up to five people. FACE refurbished the shipping container for $11,000.

When the demonstration container had finished its rotation to the churches, Gierlach asked to have it returned to St. Elizabeth’s to house the family of five that was then living in a tent on the church grounds.

Caldwell met with former state Board of Education Chairman Don Horner, a licensed pastor, and other religious leaders July 14 in his office to try to get them interested in having shipping containers moved to their church grounds as emergency housing for homeless families.

Volunteers Mary Sox-Pollard, left, and Terry Ogawa set up bedding for the homeless who slept at the Church of the Crossroads near the University of Hawaii for a week.
Volunteers Mary Sox-Pollard, left, and Terry Ogawa set up bedding for the homeless who slept at the Church of the Crossroads near the University of Hawaii for a week. Courtesy of Family Promise of Hawaii

A friend who attended the meeting told me the mayor’s suggestion fell on deaf ears for a variety of reasons. He says some pastors said it would be difficult to get approval to put shipping containers on their property since their churches didn’t own the land. Other church leaders worried that shipping containers might become permanent rather than temporary emergency fixtures in their churchyards.

Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer says the mayor still would like to work with faith-based groups to provide shipping containers and support if they agree to put the containers on their property to shelter homeless people.

Nakata says FACE was hoping the shipping container housing idea would take off in a bigger way but he says “finding the land to do it on has been very difficult.”

He says FACE lacks the financial resources to take the idea any further but he is happy that Caldwell is still trying to encourage churches to use them. He plans to use shipping containers for housing at the new Sand Island homeless facility.

Converted shipping containers have also been discussed as inexpensive accessory dwelling units, the second homes Oahu landowners are now allowed to build on qualified lots.

“We lit a fire, but it is up to others to keep the flame going,” says Nakata.

A 60-Congregation Partnership

A nonprofit group called Family Promise of Hawaii has found another and perhaps easier way for churches to house homeless families on their church property.

Family Promise has partnered with more than 60 congregations in Honolulu and Windward Oahu to provide shelter for the homeless in the churches facilities on a rotating basis.

Churches sign up to host three to four homeless families with children to live at their church for a week. During that week, church members provide the homeless guests with bedding and a safe place to sleep in the church as well as a hot breakfast, a packed lunch and a hot dinner each day.

During the day, homeless guests are taken in a van to one of Family Promise’s two family centers and then at night they are driven back to the churches.

Homeless participants must either have a job or be seeking a job and they must be flexible because they are moved to a different church each week.

Tents along Ohe Street in Kakaako. homeless. 3 july 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The homeless encampment in Kakaako has forced public officials to address the problem, says Father David Gierlach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Churches in the program usually commit to hosting families for a total of three or four weeks each year.

Family First says since it began the program in 2006, it has served 1,400 individuals, of whom 923 have found permanent housing.

Christy MacPherson, Family Promise of Hawaii’s  program manager, says, “This is a community issue that can only be solved in creative ways. Every person should have a home.”

One thing is clear. As more parishes join up to help the homeless, interest has intensified, says Gierlach of St. Elizabeth’s.

“The Kakaako homeless encampment may have been the best thing that has happened for drawing awareness to the enormity of the problem,” says Gierlach.

“Before on Oahu, many homeless people were hidden out of sight and out of mind. But the huge encampment at Kakaako put a stick in the eye of the people who have the political power and the resources to fix the problem. It is disgusting to think of people in the United States living like they were at Kakaako. Shame on government officials. Shame on all of us.”

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