Puuhonua o Waianae, a community of more than 200 homeless people living at a West Oahu boat harbor, has hit a major milestone in their effort to move their encampment to a permanent home, the group announced on Monday.
The community raised more than $800,000 in private donations to place an offer on a 20-acre piece of agricultural land. It wants to raise $650,000 more to reach a fundraising goal of $1.5 million to help cover costs including the property, closing costs and infrastructure improvements. But in the meantime, the offer was accepted by the private owner, they said.
The tentative agreement allows the group to pursue its goal of building a kauhale (homestead) village, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, that will serve its community of about 250 people.
“Our people are excited, but we are also scared,” said Twinkle Borge, the village leader. “We are excited about having roofs over our heads, and not have to worry when it’s windy or rainy. We are also excited about having lights to turn on and an actual door to close. And it’ll be nice for once to have running water.”
The announcement is a significant step forward for the self-governed group. Members have lived on the state-owned land near the Waianae Boat Harbor for over a decade during which they’ve fended off threats of removal by the state. The tight-knit community, which is two-thirds Native Hawaiian and includes several dozen children, lives in makeshift homes constructed with found materials.
Renderings for the project show small homes for individuals and families and communal kitchens and bathrooms. It will be a more permanent version of the way the group lives now, which they call a “community first” model. The new land will also be used for farming, according to James Pakele, board president of Dynamic Community Solutions, a nonprofit involved in the project.
“We’re also hoping to benefit the wider community by being able to provide food and programs and other benefits to our community,” Pakele said.
Residents will be expected to pay about $250 in rent to cover maintenance costs.
“We have always been about hand up and not hand outs,” Borge said.
Puuhonua o Waianae’s leadership declined to disclose the exact location of its new home and the name of the current owner, but a map of the parcel matches 85-908 Waianae Valley Road. The owners are Perfecto and Jesusa Acosta, according to county property records.
The group chose the property in part because of its proximity to bus lines and to schools, Pakele said. It hopes to raise the needed $650,000 by the end of February 2020 in order to operate debt-free.
In addition to fundraising for the land acquisition, the community also needs $3 million for construction. The Hawaii Legislature already allocated $300,000 in grant aid funding to help build the structures, but the money has not yet been released.
Honolulu is “extremely supportive” of the project and might offer financial help to make it happen, according to Andrew Pereira, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s communications director.
“Contributions by the city as the project evolves remain a possibility,” Pereira said in an email.
Gov. David Ige is also on board.
“We are supportive of James’ and Twinkle’s effort to raise funds to acquire a private parcel of land on which they’d like to establish a sustainable community for residents of the Waianae Boat Harbor,” he said in a statement.
“We’ve had discussions about working together and providing state services once the parcel is acquired. We look forward to supporting their effort to create this sustainable community.”
When construction is complete, Puuhonua o Waianae residents will move to the new location over a lengthy transition period in 2020, and they will clean up the area they’ve occupied for years, Pakele said.
While the Housing First model – in which people are housed and receive wraparound services – is successful for some individuals, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the government also needs to invest in other housing solutions to meet the needs of a diverse homeless population.
Green is supporting efforts to build four to 12 similar villages around the state.
“People are saying they want community,” he said. “There are people who have been homeless and get a home, and they go back to a homeless condition because they’re more comfortable being with their loved ones and friends.”
In recent weeks, Puuhonua o Waianae has been canvassing the residential area adjacent to the new land to introduce themselves.
“We’re going to be their neighbors, and we’re trying to do the right thing,” Pakele said, adding that they’ve made contact with about 100 homes to pass out fliers and invite residents to talk story.
The reaction has been mixed. Some neighbors received opposition fliers in their mailboxes last week that said in all capital letters: “WE MUST STOP THE HOMELESS COMMUNITY FROM BEING BUILT.” On the NextDoor app, someone shared an image of a sign installed on a West Oahu road stating that a “shantytown village will destroy our neighborhood.”
“There is a lot of hesitation and fear, understandably,” he said. “We’re going to continue to reach out, communicate and find ways forward and be inclusive of their concerns.”
When it comes to alleviating those fears, Pakele said the community will demonstrate its neighborliness.
“I can say anything, but it’s going to be the action that is going to make the difference,” he said.
Those who have a “not in my backyard” attitude are misguided, according to Green.
“It’s already in our backyard,” he said. “The houseless community is already in everyone’s backyard, so it’s better if people take control of their lives and have a solid community which will have good rules made by the community itself. It’s healthier in every way.”
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