Last week, as Gov. David Ige’s leadership team continued to mull over how to address Hawaii’s homelessness crisis, a new idea emerged: to use portable, modular buildings — originally designed as classrooms — to temporarily house homeless people.
The idea has one definite upside: The state already owns five spare portables — three classrooms maintained by the Hawaii Department of Education and two trailers belonging to the Hawaii Department of Defense.
“The advantage of these portable trailers is that you can easily reconfigure the interior to accommodate homeless families,” said Scott Morishige, who began his tenure as the governor’s coordinator on homelessness last week.
But, if history is any indication, Ige and his colleagues will likely have to contend with some stiff community resistance before they can put any of the portables to use — regardless of where they decide to put them.
Morishige cautions that the idea is still at a very early stage and declines to speculate on where the portables will end up being sited.
“We’re still looking at all of our different options — to find the best way to utilize the portables,” Morishige said. “We haven’t made any final decisions yet.”
To be sure, the idea is hardly revolutionary. After all, the city has been moving ahead with a number of projects that make use of modular structures to boost its inventory of affordable housing stock.
The Hale Mauliola project, for instance, will install 25 large, steel shipping containers — each measuring 8 feet by 20 feet — on a plot of vacant land on Sand Island to house up to 87 homeless people.
But the idea met resistance when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell floated it last year.
The early blueprint for the facility called for something resembling a “tent city,” which was to be set up on a parcel along a heavily industrial corridor adjacent to Sand Island Access Road.
The area is home to many Matson shipping containers, the city’s sewage treatment plant, and dozens of other businesses and warehouses — but its residential population is sparse.
Still, Caldwell’s proposed plan came under attack immediately, with many critics arguing that the facility would spur increased crime, drug use and park vandalism.
Some warned of a public health hazard from potential contamination from years of industrial use and even went as far as likening the facility to concentration camp — for homeless people displaced from Waikiki sidewalks.
In the end, Caldwell was forced to refine his approach and came up with a plan to install shipping containers that will be used as sleeping quarters.
In June, as he shared his vision for the new Hale Mauliola with reporters, Caldwell said he was hoping that it will serve as a demonstration project of sorts — to prove that using portable, modular structures can work, and that the idea can be replicated elsewhere.
“This is a pilot,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to see how it goes. We’re going to probably tweak it, improve it and do more of the same around our communities — because we have huge challenges to get more people into the shelters.”
Meanwhile, Sandra Pfund, who heads the city’s Strategic Development Office, is pursing similar modular projects all around the island — three of which are planned for the Leeward Coast.
The furthest along of the three projects is a modest plan to put three modular units on Halona Road in Waianae to house 12 homeless people.
But the plan was shot down by the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board in April.
Cedric Gates, a board member, says neighborhood residents were worried about increased criminal activities.
“They assumed that the tenants of that property will be more inclined to engage in those activities because of the fact that they were previously homeless,” Gates said.
Kellen Smith, vice chair of the board, says another concern centered around who will be selected to live in the units.
“Many of us think (the city officials) would move houseless residents from town into this project rather than allowing our current existing Waianae houseless residents to move in,” Smith said.
Pfund says her team is going back to the community with a modified plan, which will rely on local service providers to screen homeless families in the area and select them for the units.
“I think we underestimated when we first went to the Neighborhood Board that the focus of the concern would be more on social service and support side versus the actual concept of having container modulars as an alternative and efficient housing product,” Pfund said.
Pfund says she’ll be applying the lessons she’s learned to push for the other two projects, which are substantially bigger than the Halona Road project.
One will install 16 modular units on undisclosed private property to provide 100 beds, while the other will make use of land owned by the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to open a 50-bed facility using 12 modular units.
For his part, Gates says he’ll be supporting these projects.
“The reason why I support them is that they’re an effort at curbing the homeless epidemic that we now face as the state and the city and county of Honolulu,” Gates said. “For me, I feel like we’ve got to continue to support these projects because each represents a little win for the overall picture.”
Gates added that the new plan for the Halona Road project stands a better chance — now that a new slate of members has joined the board after the May election.
“The new board is more progressive, and I think we’ll take a more positive stance on this project,” Gates said. “What needs to happen is having the community involvement in the planning of the project — to develop something that can then meet the needs of the homeless population and also be on the right side of the community members.”
The state can also learn from its own experience in portable housing development — from more than 20 years ago.
In 1991, then-Gov. John Waihee embarked on an effort to establish nine transitional “villages” for homeless people, using portable buildings that had been designed as classrooms.
Waihee’s effort received broad support from the Legislature — which appropriated $3.7 million for it — but drew heated opposition from the communities: After three years, only three villages were built — in Haleiwa, Waianae and Waimanalo.
“When we first opened, the public wasn’t at all thrilled to have a shelter in their neighborhood,” said Holly Holowach, director of Weinberg Village Waimanalo. “There was actually an arson in one of the buildings. It was a message, read loud and clear. But we just moved right on forward, and, now, people love and respect us. We’re good neighbors. We’re right on the main highway and we keep the place nice and clean.”
Of the three communities, the Waimanalo village is the only one that’s still in operation. The key to its survival was that it sits on the state land, Holowach says.
“The other two were on private lands with a five-year lease. At the end of five years, private landowners wanted their land back, so 100 units disappeared,” Holowach said. “Which is really a shame, because this has been very successful.”
The village, which has 30 units, is reserved for homeless families who can pay the rent of up to $700 for a three-bedroom unit and agree to abide by a set of community rules.
“The rules are that you have to be clean and sober, and we have a lot of common-sense rules,” Holowach said. “Obviously, the top ones are: no violence and no robberies and things like that.”
Since it opened in 1994, the village has housed about 485 families — or more than 2,000 people.
From a strictly physical standpoint, the five new portables that the leadership team is looking to utilize won’t add up to the capacity of the Weinberg village — but they are bigger than what Hale Mauliola has to offer.
Each of the three portable classrooms owned by the education department measures 70 feet by 20 feet, while the defense department’s two trailers are of two different sizes: One is 35 feet by 20 feet, while the other is made up of two structures — both 35 feet by 20 feet — fused together.
In all, the five portables add up to a total of 6,300 square feet; by contrast, the total square footage of Hale Mauliola’s 25 containers is 4,000.
But Morishige says how these portables will be used is still very much up in the air.
“Before we make any firm decision on a potential site, we’re looking at what we have already available and seeing if we can maximize the existing shelter space and even come up with land on the existing shelter space to maybe utilize the portable trailers in ways that supplement the existing capacity,” Morishige said.
Ultimately, though, Morishige knows the project’s success will depend on gaining support from the surrounding community.
“The important element is to engage the communities in discussion and really hear from them,” Morishige said. “And it’s also important to get feedback from service providers because it’s not just about creating the physical space; you also want to make sure that things are done in a way that will be beneficial to the community and people that we’re trying to serve.”
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.