At first glance, the site isn’t anything to write home about.

It’s a barren 13-acre parcel just off Nimitz Highway, right across the stream from Keehi Lagoon Park. It has no electricity, water or sewage hookups. Every few minutes, a plane screams overhead, as it takes off from Honolulu International Airport, barely a mile away.

But businessman Duane Kurisu has been looking at the wedge-shaped parcel — and seeing a lot of promise.

In Kurisu’s vision, the state-owned land could be the perfect place for a “plantation-style” village for homeless families and single mothers with children — up to 300 of them.

Last week, Kurisu presented his vision for the site to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources and secured access to conduct surveys of the land.

If all goes according to plan, Kurisu would put up single-family and duplex units, complete with community gardens, children’s playgrounds and shared restrooms and kitchens.

Duane Kurisu is proposing to build a plantation-style village to tackle Hawaii's homelessness crisis.
Duane Kurisu proposes to build a plantation-style village for the homeless, especially children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kurisu plans to do all this through his nonprofit, aio Foundation, and finance it through private funds — a move aimed at cutting through the special interests and political agendas that too often stifle aggressive and creative public policy.

If need be, Kurisu — who owns a conglomerate of businesses that spans several industries, including media, technology and food services — says he’s willing to foot the bill on his own.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, says Kurisu’s contribution would be a major boost to the state’s effort.

“I do think it’s a positive sign that the private sector is willing to step up and try to address the issue of homelessness,” Morishige said. “I’m very interested in learning more about what he’s proposing.”

Not The Only Private Effort

To be sure, Kurisu is not the first businessman who has stepped forward to take the homeless issue head-on.

Across the country, private funders have long been trying to leverage their assets to help address the problem —  and, in recent years, they have been stepping up their effort.

According to the Foundation Center, 1,000 of the country’s largest foundations awarded more than $305 million in grants for homelessness initiatives in 2012 — a 60 percent jump from a decade ago.

Anne Miskey, executive director of the Funders Together to End Homelessness, a network of 185 private funders nationwide, says an increasing amount of funding is going toward “evidence-based” approaches that have a proven record of success.

“The private sector has always been involved in helping out the homeless. Unfortunately, a lot of the efforts have been well-meaning but not effective,” Miskey said. “But, in the last 10 years, there’s been an increasing focus by the private sector to really figure out what are the best practices to end, rather than manage, homelessness.”

In Hawaii, 13 funders pooled their resources last year to launch HousingASAP, a three-year, $4 million initiative to help homeless families secure permanent housing.

The initiative, led by the Hawaii Community Foundation, is aimed at getting eight homeless service providers to adopt Housing First, a national model that prioritizes placing people into permanent housing first and follows up with supportive services later.

Elsewhere across the country, private funders are partnering with local governments to maximize the impact of their efforts.

An early draft of Duane Kurisu’s vision for a homeless village was submitted to the Board of Land and Natural Resources last week. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

In Los Angeles, for instance, the Home For Good Funders Collaborative has brought together a coalition of more than 20 public and private funders — and more than $650 million of their assets — to coordinate funding, services and housing efforts.

Since its launch in 2010, the group has helped house nearly 20,000 veterans and chronically homeless people in Los Angeles County.

Morishige says the concept of a public-private partnership holds promise for Hawaii.

“It’s something that the state is interested in, and we want to explore the different opportunities to partner with the private sector,” Morishige said.

‘The Priority Is To Help Children’

For now, Kurisu is taking a go-it-alone approach with his homeless village project.

Kurisu says the concept is so new that he doesn’t even have a cost estimate; he’ll have to wait until he gets the results from the surveys and environmental review process before he can come up with any concrete plans.

“Normally, you don’t do things like this in business — to just go in, without knowing how much it’ll cost,” Kurisu said. “But, in this case, I think it’s worth the effort.”

“Those of us who grew up in plantation towns probably would have faced the same situation as a number of these homeless families do — if it wasn’t for the benevolent plantation owners who provided housing, water, sewer, built schools and churches. So that’s what I hope to do. That’s what my heart tells me — to replicate it for those who are less fortunate.”

But Kurisu knows one thing for sure: The village would be built to foster “an environment that encourages old-time plantation culture.”

The idea stems from Kurisu’s upbringing: He grew up in a family of seven, crammed inside a two-bedroom house in the former plantation town of Hakalau, just north of Hilo on the Big Island.

“Those of us who grew up in plantation towns probably would have faced the same situation as a number of these homeless families do — if it wasn’t for the benevolent plantation owners who provided housing, water, sewer, built schools and churches,” Kurisu said. “So that’s what I hope to do. That’s what my heart tells me — to replicate it for those who are less fortunate.”

To realize this vision, Kurisu says he’ll eschew public funds.

“The reason why we think it needs to be that way is because we don’t want to be pigeonholed into a position where we’re mandated to give free access to all the people in need,” Kurisu said. “We want to be prejudiced in a good way — to make sure that the priority is to help children.”

The project would still need some public support in the form of permits and zoning changes, as well as buy-in from nearby residents and businesses.

For his part, state Sen. Glenn Wakai, whose district includes the proposed site of Kurisu’s village, says he’s behind the project.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’m glad to see that the private sector is willing to be part of the solution,” Wakai said. “I would be happy to support anything that would help this project move forward expeditiously.”

But Wakai acknowledges there’s bound to be some resistance from the community.

“I think there’s always going to be NIMBY, the not-in-my-backyard folks, no matter where you put something like this,” Wakai said. “But we have to solve this problem in some sort of way. So, if you’re not going to embrace this idea, then naysayers should come up with a better plan. You can’t just torpedo every single idea. That’s what paralyzes our community.”

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