As the early morning sun filtered through the coconut trees lining the roadway, the couple spoke in hushed voices, searching for their belongings in the trunk of their car.

It’s just after 6:30 a.m., and the homeowners in the neighborhood around them were just waking up. Every so often, a pedestrian or car passes by, on the way to work or to the nearby beach. But Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter don’t wave or say good morning. They don’t want to draw attention as they go about their morning routine.

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That’s because they live out of two vehicles: a 2015 cargo van, where they sleep, and a 20-year-old Toyota Prius that they use to store their stuff and get around during the day because it’s better on gas. It’s illegal to live in cars on public roadways in Hawaii, but the couple has been doing so on Maui for the last three months, trying to blend in with the tourists who rent vans for up to $300 per day to travel the island.

The couple doesn’t stay there long. Hunter must leave for work by 7:30 a.m. for his construction job. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Prius, he pulls on socks and laces up his shoes. Next to him on the passenger’s side, Woodall brushes her teeth, using a water bottle.

A photograph of Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter cleaning their dishes at Kanaha
Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter like eating dinner at Kanaha Beach Park because they can use the hose to wash their dishes. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

They run through their daily checklist of everything they might need that day: Hunter’s hard hat and knee pads for work, phone chargers, backup batteries, packed lunches, bottles of water, towels to shower later at the gym, the clothes that they plan to sleep in. They won’t come back to the van until hours after nightfall, when the world around them won’t notice they’ve returned.

Securing Shelter

Like so many other young people who came to Maui before them, Woodall and Hunter had a dream to see the world. They wanted to experience the island’s natural beauty, its spirituality and live off its fresh and locally grown food. The big problem: When they came here last fall, they didn’t know the median sales price for a home was about to soar months later to a record high of $1.16 million. Even families with roots that stretch back generations on Maui were increasingly being priced out of their homes.

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Usually, it’s a complicated mix of things that can force people out of housing — poverty, a lack of access to health care, mental illness, addiction, trauma, low wages, unexpected expenses, job losses, astronomical rent costs. In 2020, Maui outreach workers counted nearly 800 people living on the streets or in shelters, although that number is likely much higher, as that tally only includes people counted on a single day of the year as part of a nationwide effort to track the number of people who’ve lost their homes. The county doesn’t track the number of people living in cars, and there’s no way to know how many Maui residents were recently forced to move into them after housing costs soared during the pandemic.

For Woodall and Hunter, the reason they ended up without a place to live was pretty simple. They had thought they’d found a rental, then it fell through.

A photograph of Rashawn Hunter putting on socks in his car while Liz Woodall brushes her teeth.
The county of Maui doesn’t track how many people, like Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter, live in vehicles. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Woodall, 30, and Hunter, 24, both grew up in Virginia. They met there three years ago through a mutual friend. At the time, he was working at Barnes & Noble, and she was working as a mobile car detailer.

When Woodall thinks about it now, she laughs, because back then, she said, Hunter “was an inside person.” The first day they hung out, they spent hours inside his apartment, talking over herbal tea without realizing that any time had passed.

From that day on, they spent every moment they could together. They planned all sorts of adventures: They wanted to go to Costa Rica, hike the Colorado Trail, live in Hawaii. First, they went to Kauai, and then they ended up on Hawaii island, helping a couple renovate a house in exchange for a place to live. But Woodall has a degenerative eye disease and isn’t able to drive, which made it hard to get around. So the couple decided to move to Maui last fall, hoping it might be easier for her to navigate bike lanes and the bus system.

They’d been talking with a property owner in Haiku, who told them they could live in a bus parked on his property for $700 a month. They shipped their old Toyota that they’d bought on Hawaii island to Maui and booked their flights. But the day they arrived, they found out he wanted to rent to a single person, not a couple.

There’s a widespread myth in Hawaii that many of the people who end up living on the streets are given a one-way ticket here by mainland agencies. But in reality, the limited data that exists shows that people experiencing homelessness in Hawaii are often from here, and disproportionately Native Hawaiians, who are priced out of their ancestral lands.

It’s not uncommon for Maui’s working poor to shelter in their vehicles when the gap between wages and housing becomes too vast. A small fraction are people who come here from the mainland, like Woodall and Hunter, who end up without a place to live shortly after they arrive, after witnessing firsthand just how high Hawaii’s cost of living is.

That first night they slept in the sedan, which was “a nightmare,” Woodall said. It was hot and cramped, but they couldn’t afford many of the rental homes listed on Craigslist, some as high as $2,500 for a one-bedroom, which meant the upfront moving costs would likely be double that with the deposit. They ended up buying a tent at Walmart and found a secluded place to camp near a beach by the airport. Meanwhile, Hunter started working at a cafe in Paia. They wanted to start saving again.

A photograph of Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter in the middle of their morning routine.
The mornings are the hardest for Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter. They wake up around 5:30 a.m., with the sound of the birds, and have to gather all their belongings for the day before Hunter goes to work. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

They were there for almost a month, until someone stole their blankets, pillows and tarp covering their tent while Hunter was at work. Woodall broke down. They couldn’t live like this anymore. So they desperately began brainstorming ways to secure shelter and came up with an idea: What if, despite their limited income and credit scores, they could find a car dealer willing to sell them a van?

They found only one dealership on Maui that had used vans for sale. After five hours in its office, the salesperson helped them get approved for a loan. The interest was high — the monthly payment was more than $700. But it was still less than rent.

The Search For A Spot To Park

Once they got the van, the couple faced a new challenge: Finding a safe place to park it. On Maui, campgrounds are scarce and usually come at a cost. And unlike some communities on the mainland, there aren’t parking lots or places that are designated as safe spaces for people who sleep in their vehicles, according to the county. There aren’t large swaths of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management either, where people are typically allowed to camp for up to two weeks at a time.

A couple months ago, Hunter tried posting an ad on Craigslist: “Looking for a spot to park my van sometimes and my car,” he wrote. “We’re quiet, clean, professional.” The couple was willing to pay a few hundred dollars a month and promised to be gone during the day. But no one ever responded.

He did, however, eventually get lucky with Craigslist: He recently found a job working with a renovation crew at a resort in Wailea, a full-time gig that paid at least double what he was making at the cafe. When he goes to work, he usually drops Woodall off at Starbucks in Kahului, which offers free internet and hot water that she can use to make tea and oatmeal.

Since moving to Maui, Woodall says it’s been hard to find a job that she can work with her limited vision — and the inability to drive there. Growing up, she always needed glasses, but suddenly, when she was in high school, she realized she couldn’t read the whiteboard at all. A dark spot had appeared in the center of her field of vision. Soon after that, she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a rare genetic eye condition that would cause the blackhole to grow larger over time.

“It’s like losing somebody you really care about,” she said.

A photograph of Liz Woodall riding her bike through a Maui intersection.
Despite her declining vision, Liz Woodall uses a bike to get around Maui when Rashawn Hunter is at work. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

It also makes living outside particularly challenging. It’s navigating street signs on her bicycle without being able to read the letters, searching for items at the grocery store without seeing their prices and simply existing in the world as a woman. When Hunter is at work, and she’s alone, she’s often approached by strangers, some of whom she can’t see until they’re quite close. She’s learned to keep her cellphone out, ready to call for help.

Everything, it seems, is more difficult without a safe place to call home — and a kitchen, toilet, shower or place to cook food without Maui’s trade winds blasting their camping stove. Food is more expensive when you can’t buy in bulk without a fridge to store it in. Then you have to buy bags of ice every couple of days to stock the cooler.

When Hunter worked for the cafe, he earned $13 per hour, plus tips; now he makes $25 an hour doing renovation work. Woodall receives about $800 in Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that supports people who are blind or disabled.

A photograph of Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter cooking dinner at a picnic table at Kanaha Beach Park
Simple tasks like cooking dinner and washing dishes are more expensive — and time consuming — without a house. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Like other Maui residents who must live in public places when they’re unable to afford the privacy of a home, their money goes fast: $700 each month for the van’s payment, $400 for the Toyota, $300 to pay off credit cards they owe from previous years, then there’s food, gas and the gym membership so they can take hot showers. Each month they splurge on a $10 Spotify subscription and a $50 unlimited membership to a cinema in Kahului — because the screens are so big, Woodall can make out the shapes in the movies.

“By the time that we are done paying all of our bills, we could have enough money to pay for housing,” Woodall said. “But there’s no housing.”

Not Meant To Be

When Hunter gets off work, the dust from scraping out grout in hotel bathrooms is so saturated into his pants that when he pats his thighs, plumes of white powder rise into the air around them. It’s hard work being hunched down on his knees every day, but he hopes that the construction job could be their path to financial stability.

With their leftover income each month, the couple hopes to buy materials to build out the van, with a goal to one day sell it at a profit. In recent years, #vanlife exploded across the U.S. and has since spread to Maui, offering the promise of minimalism, a lower cost of living and greater freedom to travel.

Camper van rentals on Maui have become so popular that the County Council is now weighing how to regulate them — some of them rent for nearly $300 per night and are fully equipped with toilets and Wifi, advertised as a way visitors can explore the island’s natural wonders and fall asleep with the sound of waves crashing outside their window.

Still, even people with money who rent vans for hundreds of dollars a night can face the same dilemma that Hunter and Woodall do: Finding a place to park where they won’t be hassled and the neighbors won’t complain.

Like many of the people who live out of their cars on Maui, by choice or by sheer necessity, Woodall and Hunter ended up using Kanaha Beach Park as a home base. It’s where, months before their arrival, dozens of people were living in tents and vehicles, until the county cleared them away last fall, despite federal government guidance warning against the practice in the middle of the pandemic. Until then, Kanaha served as a last resort for many longtime Maui residents, some of whose families had been here for generations but couldn’t keep up with the rising cost of living.

A photograph of Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter clearing up their dinner at Kanaha.
Liz Woodall and Rashawn Hunter are among many people who’ve looked to Kanaha when they have nowhere else to go. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Woodall and Hunter now go there every evening to cook dinner. They roll into the last entrance, which is usually more secluded, park and begin to pack up everything they need to make dinner and leftovers so they don’t have to eat out during the day: the camping stove, pots, pans, lighter, Tupperware, gallon jug of water, dish soap, utensils, plus all the food they plan to cook.

By the time they arrive around 5 p.m., there are usually at least a half-dozen other vehicles that appear to serve as mobile homes; more begin to flow into the parking lot after the workday ends. Around them, the setting sun dances through the kiawe trees. On the beach, children screech and giggle, playing in the waves.

They try to savor each evening because they’ve decided that their days on Maui are numbered. Woodall’s vision has dramatically declined in the last month, and she’s finally coming to terms with the fact that it’d be easiest for her to live in a big city, where there’s robust public transit and greater access to social services. Now, they’re doing all they can do to save money for stable housing elsewhere.

“We were going to try to find a way to make it work, but we’re realizing that we’re probably not meant to be on this island,” Hunter said. “At least not right now.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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