As Hawaii tackles the growing problem of homelessness, the state is trying a new strategy for transitioning unsheltered people into permanent housing.

On Tuesday, the state unveiled 37 tiny homes in West Oahu as part of a planned community, a concept organizers said was modeled on another tiny home program in Austin, Texas.

The more than $4 million project — a collaboration among the state, nonprofits, construction agencies and donors — is targeting military veterans and others experiencing homelessness. So far, only 10 people have applied, but organizers are conducting outreach to fill up the vacant homes, according to Daryl Vincent, chief operating officer of U.S. Vets.

HomeAid Hawaii Opens Doors at Kama’okū. View inside one of the small homes during opening ceremonies and blessing.
The tiny homes are furnished, but residents must share common bathroom, shower and laundry facilities. Utilities are included in the rent, which is about $500 per month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The first residents are expected to move in to the area called Kamaoku, which means village, by Dec. 1, he said.

Located on Yorktown Street, a strip with other transitional housing facilities and shelters, the homes will be rented for at least $500 per month, including utilities. Incoming residents don’t have to work to qualify, but U.S. Vets will help them find a job or other financial services, Vincent said.

Each 100-square-foot home cost about $22,000 to build and includes a lanai and furniture. However, residents must share restroom, laundry and shower facilities as well as a kitchen, which are located in a 2,800-square-foot community center that also includes a medical clinic, a community lounge and storage.

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The opening comes as officials struggle to cope with the growing problem of homelessness that has been exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing on an island where the median price of a home surpassed $1 million in September.

Many cities have built tiny homes as a relatively low-cost alternative to crowded shelters, tent encampments or dangerous street life.

“Welcome to Kamaoku,” Nani Mederios, executive director of HomeAid Hawaii, said at a press conference. She called it a place “to thrive” and “a place where kindness is going to be offered, extended and reciprocated, regardless of your status.”

Kamaoku also has a community garden where residents are allowed to grow their own food. Mederios said that residents can grow good for their own sustainability or to sell it to make money.

Development began in 2019. Initially at least 10 tiny homes were supposed to open in March 2020, but the project was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vincent said outreach also has been slowed because organizers didn’t want to promise anybody a home until they were sure it would be ready to open.

“We’re not just giving someone a house, we’re providing and sharing a home in a community.” Vincent said. “It’s about time that we start talking about housing rights because housing is not a privilege. It is a right and a responsibility. And it’s a human right.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who was involved in the project, was impressed with the results and remembered the challenges behind construction.

“When we first went into this building, which I can’t even believe it as I look at it now, the roof was terrible and the walls were awful,” Green said, referring to the community center. “There were centipedes everywhere. There were so many centipedes I thought I was on the Big island.”

HomeAid Hawaii Opens Doors at Kama’okū during opening ceremonies and blessing held on site.
The state has opened 37 tiny homes in West Oahu in a bid to provide more permanent housing for homeless military veterans and civilians. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Sen. Kurt Fevella, who represents Ewa Beach and also was part of the project, said the area had been transformed from an empty lot covered with abandoned cars and trash. He urged other communities to embrace similar projects in an apparent reference to opposition known as NIMBYism, or “not in my backyard.”

“The reason why this was successful is because it was done from the heart first,” Fevella said. “That’s how we’re going to go forward. We need to put one like this in everyone’s backyard because this is something beautiful.”

The state is considering building more tiny homes.

“I believe that several modestly sized kauhale like this one, in multiple regions in the state, is the best way to address this challenge as an ohana,” Green said.

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