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For years, Twinkle Borge and members of the Waianae Boat Harbor homeless community have been working to transform their makeshift village into something more: a stable refuge.
Now, just a week after the state appeared poised to sweep the camp, their dream of gaining a more permanent status for the community appears to be gaining traction in the governor’s office.
Gov. David Ige said Wednesday that his office is actively looking for vacant land in the Waianae area that might be suitable for the encampment to relocate to.
Ige voiced his support for relocating the encampment, known as Puuhonua O Waianae, a day after he met privately with Borge and assured her that the state would not conduct a sweep of the state-owned land where the camp sits.
“Hopefully we will be able to find a solution and help Twinkle and that community transition smoothly to a more sustainable location,” Ige said.
The meeting with Borge did not signal a change of heart, Ige said, but rather an opportunity to clarify miscommunications.
The governor contradicted other state officials on a couple of key points in an interview with Civil Beat on Wednesday: whether there were plans for an imminent sweep and whether the state was facing a deadline to apply for a federal grant to establish an education center at the site in place of the homeless encampment.
A representative from the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state’s homeless coordinator announced plans at a Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board meeting March 6 to clear the Waianae Boat Harbor land by June. A proposed timeline for the site obtained by Civil Beat outlined potential enforcement of criminal trespassing laws starting in May.
But Ige insists that no sweep was planned.
“They had tried to express that there was no specific enforcement intended at this time but it wasn’t received in that manner,” Ige said.
Click here to watch a video of the neighborhood board meeting.
About 210 people currently live in tents and makeshift structures on state land adjacent to the Waianae Boat Harbor. Unlike encampments in urban Honolulu however, Puuhonua has garnered a lot of support from the surrounding community.
Ige said people living in the Waianae area had been reaching out to his office over the past few weeks to express concern about the possibility of a sweep.
“People had expressed to me that that wouldn’t be a good thing to happen right now,” Ige said.
The meeting between Borge and Ige was held at the home of legendary Hawaiian surfer and original Hokulea crew member Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, after his wife, Momi Keaulana, reached out to a member of the Board of Land and Natural Resources to discuss the possible sweep.
“They don’t cause any trouble,” Momi Keaulana told Civil Beat on Wednesday. “They make rules and regulations. From the outside it looks like a big mess. Inside it’s very clean.”
Keaulana said she was grateful that Ige came to her Nanakuli home to meet with Borge.
“I told the governor, actually you know these are human beings and the Hawaiians are really being pushed around,” Keaulana said.
Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board member Kellen Smith said that supporters of Puuhonua are not waiting for the state to find a solution.
Smith and others involved with Dynamic Community Solutions, a nonprofit created on behalf of the encampment, are looking for land to relocate people to, including private land.
“It’s not like we’re just waiting for the state to fix it,” Smith said.
Businesses in Waianae that have expressed interest in building shelters or adding solar panels to the current camp are reluctant to invest time and money if a sweep is imminent, Smith said. With a site secured, he anticipates some businesses wouldn’t hesitate to donate their time and resources to build infrastructure and homes.
Ige says he wants to encourage that kind of initiative.
“The only way that we can eliminate homelessness in Hawaii is if the entire community takes responsibility and tries to do their part,” he said.
Finding a suitable site for Puuhonua could prove challenging. It would need to have basic infrastructure like water and electricity, Ige said, and also be close to public transportation.
Ige said state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige has been working with Borge and looking for alternative sites for more than a year. Morishige had been meeting with leaders from Puuhonua monthly, but those meetings stopped sometime last year.
“The most important thing I think is that Twinkle and I met and we committed to each other that we would work together to see if we can find the solution,” Ige said.
Borge said Wednesday that she would continue to look for alternative sites as well.
Even if a sweep isn’t imminent, “that doesn’t mean we will stay there,” Borge said.
Smith of the neighborhood board said state officials have been “wishy-washy” about their plans for the camp.
“To me it seems a bit whimsical,” Smith said. “Whatever the pressure is, however direction the wind is blowing, that’s kind of how they make decisions.”
The lack of communication about the issue has diminished the community’s trust in the state, Smith said.
Morishige told the Neighborhood Board earlier this month that the state needed to clear the Waianae Boat Harbor because state plans to transform the property into a marine education center were dependent on federal grant funding. Morishige said the grant deadline was in June and the property had to be vacant before the state could apply.
On Wednesday, however, Ige said that there was no federal grant application pending.
“There have been programs in the past that we believed the project would qualify for,” Ige said. “But there isn’t a current federal posting that we would be eligible to pursue at this point in time.”
Short of offering an alternative parcel, Smith said the state can help homeless families by turning the water back on at a spigot near the camp. The DLNR shut off the water in November for a construction project, leaving homeless families searching for alternative sources of water to bathe and wash their clothes. The spigots were expected to be turned back on at the end of December but are still off.
Neighborhood board member and Puuhonua supporter Ken Koike said the board is still planning to hold a special meeting about Puuhonua on Thursday night.
“The crisis is far from over,” Koike said. “Everyone who has seen political promises broken in their lifetime recognizes how fragile this entire situation is.”
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