WAIMEA, Kauai — Brandee Abuan sat on the side of the red dirt-dusted road last week as the sun slid down into the horizon and the birds went home to their trees to roost.
Seven months pregnant and searching for a place for her family to go, she made phone call after phone call until there was no one left to call and nothing left to do.
“We were sitting in the dark waiting for something to happen,” said 32-year-old Abuan, who had just been evicted from the county’s temporary homeless camp at Salt Pond Beach Park, along with her husband; her son Indiana, 5; her daughter Bella, 3; and three pet dogs.
Designated shelter-in-place camps at five county beach parks were intended to make it easier for health regulators to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak among the island’s homeless population, although there never was one.
Now that the coronavirus threat has lessened, government officials have shut down the homeless camps so residents and tourists can reclaim these spaces for leisure camping and recreation.
The camp closures have displaced hundreds of people. Although county officials and service providers have helped dozens of evicted families find housing, there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. And in some cases, people don’t want the help.
Huddled with her family on the roadside last week, Abuan, who lived with her family at the Salt Pond for eight months, said she felt like she was out of options.
Then, like a miracle, she received a text message that changed her fortune: A couple in Waimea had a rent-free bedroom for her family to live in.
Marcia and David “Buna” Leialoha said they had seen cell phone videos on social media depicting the eviction of dozens of homeless people from Salt Pond, where the county on June 30 began a prolonged effort to evict campers who were refusing to leave the beach park because they said they had nowhere else to go.
Wanting to help, the Leialohas invited about two dozen displaced campers to live with them in Waimea. It was such a big deal that the local newspaper wrote a story about it, catching the attention of the Leialohas’ landlord.
Now the Leialohas, who rent the property that they have opened to so many other people, could face a serious consequence for their generous spirit. Transforming the property into an experiment in communal living is a clear violation of their monthly rental agreement, and the Leialohas said their landlord has told them that they and their guests could all face eviction.
This week board members of the Kikiaola Land Company, the entity that owns the beachfront property, are set to discuss what to do about the situation.
George Christensen, board chairman of Kikiaola Land Company, and board member Christine Faye, did not return requests for comment.
The Leialohas said they have not yet been informed of a decision.
“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but I had no choice,” Buna Leialoha said. “This is a humanitarian rescue effort. This isn’t activism. Look at these children — where were they going to go?”
The Leialohas had gotten to know many of the people at the Salt Pond camp over the 14 months they had been allowed to live there freely, without having to dodge the authorities. Occasionally Marcia Leialoha traveled seven miles from her house to the Salt Pond homeless camp to cook pancakes and eggs for everyone.
One day she brought down posters and markers and helped the keiki at Salt Pond make posters to protest the camp’s looming closure.
“This is our home,” one of the kids wrote.
Another child wrote, “I love you.”
Marcia Leialoha made a sign that read, “No evict Salt Pond.”
“When I hear stories of people who are pregnant, born and raised on Kauai and houseless, it’s just not the way we should be as a society to toss people onto the side of the road,” Marcia Leialoha said.
When Buna Leialoha moved into the house seven years ago, he said it was falling apart and littered with drug paraphernalia and human feces.
So he cleaned it out and fixed it up as part of a work-trade agreement that allowed him to live there as a caretaker.
More recently he has been living at the house with his wife in exchange for month-to-month rent.
The house, built in the early 20th century, is part of the old Yamane plantation camp now owned by the Faye family of Kikiaola Land Company.
The Faye family is comprised of descendants of Norwegian-born Hans Peter Faye, who developed sugar cane plantations on Kauai in the late 1800s.
The family sold off the sugar business in 1968 but still owns land in the area, including some of the old Yamane camp houses.
Buna Leialoha said most of the homes adjacent to the house he fixed up are also owned by the Kikiaola Land Company. And most of them, he said, are occupied by squatters.
He said if the neighboring squatters are allowed to stay, so should the displaced campers that he and his wife invited to live on the property that they’ve brought out of disrepair.
“We did this in good faith and I already know the outcome: it’s all going to be good,” said Marcia Leialoha.
“Salt Pond wasn’t just about housing, it was about community,” she said. “It was about people learning to share and care for one another from the kupuna all the way down to the keiki. So when we saw all these people on the side of the road and it’s getting dark and the kids are getting hungry, we said, ‘Shoots, you’re coming back to my house. Little Waimea Woodstock, here we go.’”
Throughout the islands, people and organizations have been working hard to help each other get through the coronavirus pandemic and social and political rifts. We’ve been documenting these efforts in a special Community Scrapbook. Please let us know about any upcoming events or send us your own photos, we’d love to include them!
The day after the campers arrived on the property, the Leialohas brought in portable toilets.
In the last week, there has been a steady stream of donations — fresh-caught fish, bottled water, clothes, mattresses, bedding, toiletries and toys for the keiki — delivered to the property by community members who want to help.
The group has also set ground rules: Be respectful to one another, keep the property clean and tidy. Decisions are being made collaboratively by the group, which now has a name: Holomua Hawaiian Ahupuaa Resource Development.
Three people who moved onto the property have been kicked out because they violated the group’s firm no-drugs rule.
About 20 people remain, including Native Hawaiians who say their ancestors’ bones are buried near the property where they’ve spent the last week cobbling together makeshift homes on the lawn.
Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden, who periodically visited the county’s temporary homeless camps to try and find housing solutions for the people who lived there, said she would like the county to create a special use permit that would allow communal living on agricultural land — if neighboring land owners agree to it.
Puuhonua o Waianae, a self-regulated village of more than 200 homeless people in West Oahu, is an example of the kind of community that Cowden said she would like the county to allow on Kauai.
“If we don’t allow for things like this, we’re going to have people littered all over the place like Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Cowden said. “This would allow for dignity and it would be just one tool we can use while we place the majority of our focus on creating affordable standard housing for people who want an apartment or a house.”
Kauai County Housing Director Adam Roversi said he had hoped that one of the county’s now-shuttered temporary homeless camps would have evolved into a mirror image of Puuhonua O Waianae. But, he said, a productive communal living camp is not what materialized.
“You go to Waianae and the walkways are cleaned,” he said. “There’s no garbage anywhere. There are no falling apart vehicles being disassembled. There are no piles of tires. But the reality on the ground at our beach parks was very different from what exists at Waianae.”
Some of the people who lived at Kauai’s beach parks cared for one another and the land on which they created homes. But others vandalized and littered the parks and engaged in drug and criminal activity, Roversi said.
“I’m sure that there were some segments of the folks at the parks who felt like they were in a community,” Roversi said. “But to some people’s eyes, they were also kind of a Lord of the Flies community.”
Only about half of the people who lived at the homeless camps sought help from county workers and service providers who turned up at the camps multiple times to help people find a permanent housing solution.
“It wasn’t all bad and I don’t want to paint it with broad brush strokes, but I don’t think we should fool ourselves that it was some sort of a utopian community,” Roversi said.
Before the county closed the camps, government officials made efforts to house some of the hundreds of people who had been living in them.
But there simply aren’t enough housing options for everyone.
During the pandemic, the county built 230 new affordable homes, including many options available to homeless people, according to Roversi.
Nearly all of the families that moved into the county’s new 30-unit Kealaula on Pua Loke Supportive Housing Development in Lihue had been homeless and camping at county beach parks. The development, which opened at the beginning of this year, offers social services, including substance abuse counseling and employment services, to approximately 70 residents who live there.
But the housing project is at full capacity with a waiting list.
The county has about $4 million set aside to build another 30-unit Kealaula-style housing project, but it still needs to find a physical location for it.
Another 15 formerly homeless families have secured housing through the Kauai County Housing Agency’s Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program, similar to Section 8 rental assistance but specifically reserved for homeless people.
The island’s emergency homeless shelter — which only has 19 of its 40 beds available because of COVID-19 precautions — is full. But the county is investing $700,000 to build the shelter a new sewer system so that it can eventually expand the bed count, Roversi said.
The number of available vouchers for the island’s Section 8 rental assistance program increased by more than 200 households to about 900 during the pandemic, Roversi said.
There’s also a pot of $22 million in federal CARES Act money that’s being funneled toward emergency rental assistance on Kauai to pay up to a year of rent.
But to be eligible, the tenant must first have a lease agreement.
For many homeless people, this requirement is a non-starter.
About four months after the $22 million first became available, Roversi said only about half has been spent because there’s a shortage of qualified applications coming in.
Apart from the county’s inability to find housing solutions for everyone in need, Roversi said some people simply aren’t accepting the help available to them.
“When we announced back in the early days of COVID-19 that we were going to allow this shelter-in-place program at our parks, we were told by the other counties that we were crazy to do that, that if we establish these (camps) we will never be able to undo them and they will become a forever place,” Roversi said. “That didn’t happen. But the harsh reality is that a lot of these people have gone back to hiding out right where they were before the county allowed them to stay at the beach parks.”
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.