LIHUE, Kauai—A few months ago, Christmas 2020 loomed as pretty bleak for D.J. Kaneakua and his son, Drayden, 7. They were homeless, living in beach parks, parking lots or spaces on the street in Kaneakua’s Toyota 4Runner.

He had been laid off from his job as a maintenance worker in Kalaheo as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kaneakua, 36, parked wherever he could — never for very long — but stayed focused on his role as a single father raising his son alone.

But then, a few months ago, he heard about a new complex the Kauai County Housing Agency has been building on land originally set aside as a park in honor of Spark Matsunaga, a Kauai native who, after several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, served as a U.S. senator from 1971 to 1977. He died in 1990.

Sharon Graham of Women In Need manages the Kealaula on Pua Loke housing project in Lihue. There are currently 42 formerly homeless people living at Pua Loke, even though the complex is still under construction. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

The complex is called Kealaula on Pua Loke. It is one of a series of housing initiatives that have been pushed aggressively by Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami.

The idea is to provide stable housing at low cost — $700 a month for one-bedroom apartments and $500 for studios — to give homeless people a place to land with a roof over their heads, paid utilities, a laundry room and wraparound social services ranging from credit training to employment assistance.

The effort is similar to a project that opened in the Sand Island area of Honolulu in 2015. That project, however, consists of 26 converted shipping containers, which lack private bathrooms and kitchens.

Pua Loke is a 22-unit grouping of custom built studio and one-bedroom apartments — each with its own bathroom and kitchen — that, while still unfinished, is currently home to 42 formerly homeless people. According to county Housing Agency Director Adam Roversi, the complex has already been able to absorb nearly all of the homeless families who had previously been living in four county beach parks.

D.J. Kaneakua and his 7-year-old son, Drayden, are among the first residents of the Pua Loke housing project in Lihue. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

The project, including the services it provided to residents, is being built at a total cost of $4.1 million, though only $500,000 in county money is involved. The rest is direct federal spending and other sources related to the federal government.

The county has contracted with Women In Need, a nonprofit service provider with operations on Oahu and Kauai, to operate the facility. A management firm has also been retained to collect rent, supervise maintenance and provide other support services.

“Of the 22 units we’ll have when construction is completed, probably 15 of those households are from the beach,” said Sharon Graham, manager of the complex. Many of those households have children. The all-inclusive rent payments cover internet in addition to other utilities.

Graham said it took six months to recruit the first group of residents. Some people were reluctant to get involved because they felt they had been consistently ignored by public housing agencies. There is pervasive mistrust of government within the homeless community, Graham said, which had to be overcome.

“Most of these people are working families,” Graham said. “Many of them were made homeless by COVID-19.”

She said many residents have little experience with budgeting.

“They need tools they never had before or were too embarrassed to ask for,” she said.

There is no limit on how long residents can stay, but Pua Loke is not intended as permanent housing. The idea is for their lives, employment situations and other factors to stabilize enough for them to move on to other forms of affordable housing, like a 55-unit workforce apartment complex being developed next door to the homeless project.

The workforce project will be a more conventional apartment development. The county is spending $28 million to construct it, according to spokesperson Kim Tamaoka.

Both sites are immediately adjacent to the former Kukui Grove Cinema. It is not known when, or if, the theater will reopen. There has been some speculation about converting it, too, into housing for low-income or homeless people.

Single dad Kaneakua said that while he liked being on the beach parked in his SUV, it had become overwhelmingly clear that raising Drayden in such a situation would be virtually impossible.

He said he and his son like their new apartment at Pua Loke.

“It’s certainly bigger than a 4Runner,” he said. “It feels like home. I like that.”

Sharon Graham of Women In Need manages the Pua Loke complex. Unlike the Sand Island housing project on Oahu, Pua Loke is centrally located and near transportation for residents. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

Roversi said the wraparound service aspect of Pua Loke is designed to help residents succeed in their efforts to stay housed. Many so-called affordable housing projects, he said, attract people who “traditionally are able to move in but get kicked out very soon. Usually, they’re back on the streets within a couple of months.”

Construction costs were kept low, Roversi said, by use of on-site modular construction techniques. Pua Loke was built for about $100 per square foot, versus $300 to $500 for more conventional construction, he said.

The project has already been so successful that the county is in negotiations for additional state-owned land next door so Pua Loke can expand. The county is actively planning for perhaps as many as four more similar projects, Roversi said, which in theory could accommodate the vast majority of the estimated 450 homeless people on the island.

The county recently purchased 400 acres in Waimea, which, he said, would be an ideal west side location.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not deterred the Kauai County Council from pouring as much money as possible into housing.

“The council has viewed housing as one of their top priorities,” he said. “To the extent they have any money, they have been devoting significant amounts to the Housing Agency.”

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