In the heart of the council chambers, Jessica Lau began to pray.

She’d already written down what she was going to tell the elected officials about their new plan to create Maui’s first safe space where people could sleep in their cars. She’d gone over the words so many times in her head. But as soon as the clerk called her name to testify and she stood in front of government leaders, she suddenly knew that she had to throw all that away. 

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“My journey started two years ago,” Lau began.

As she spoke, tears pooled in her eyes. For the last seven years, she’s worked as a tour bus and limousine driver, taking visitors to the airport, weddings and on excursions across the island. But at the beginning of the pandemic, when the tourists stopped coming, Lau lost her income — and then her apartment.

“This bill is important to me because today I live in my car,” Lau, 52, told the County Council. “And I still attend to my work.”

But right now, Lau’s temporary solution to her current inability to afford housing is illegal under state law. Living out of cars — and sleeping in them — in public spaces and on roadways is banned between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., which means that she’s constantly looking over her shoulder, worried she might get ticketed after closing her eyes to rest.

Jessica Lau lost her Harbor Lights apartment when she came up short on rent in February 2020. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Across Maui County, there’s no way of knowing how many people, like Lau, live in their vehicles; neither governments nor nonprofits track that number. But many suspect the figure may be on the rise as the typical rent in an already unaffordable place has soared 40% in the last year

At the same time, if everyone living on Maui’s streets were to seek emergency shelter all at once, there simply wouldn’t be enough beds to accommodate all. So council members are proposing what they think could be the next best thing.

Earlier this year, at the urging of Maui nonprofit Share Your Mana, which advocates for the community’s unsheltered residents, the council put $200,000 aside to stand up a space where people can go to sleep safely in their cars — a place equipped with bathrooms, security and connections to social service agencies.

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Last week, the members of Maui County Council’s affordable housing committee took a step toward making that a reality by moving to change county law, paving the way to someday make it legal for people to sleep in vehicles on government-owned property where officials decide to permit it.

“There are people who are living in their cars who have jobs, or who just lost their jobs and want to get a job,” council member Kelly King, who spearheaded the proposal, told supporters at an event last month. “These are people who are going to job interviews and their kids are going to school and they can’t get a good night’s sleep.”

For Lau, it all started in February 2020 when she lost almost everything — all because she was $500 short on rent. She’d been leading tours to Hana, where her family’s roots trace back generations, but the excursions suddenly stopped when the coronavirus began spreading across the globe. At the same time, Lau said she’d loaned the little money she’d already saved to help out her son.

Darren Vasquesz Jr., Jessica Lau and Laura Reidell spoke at Thursday’s council meeting. They’ve all lived on Maui in their vehicles in recent years and serve on the advisory board of Share Your Mana. Screenshot/2022

Since it was only February, there wasn’t yet a nationwide eviction moratorium to protect her. After the eviction, she moved from her apartment overlooking the Kahului harbor into the only major asset she had left: her 2005 Scion. She parked the car, piled full of her belongings, just a short distance down the road at a gravel lot next to the harbor’s boat ramp. It was the first time she’d ever lived on the street.

As soon as she could, she got another job — and then a second one — while she bounced back and forth between the harbor and Kanaha Beach Park, a place that has served as a last resort for dozens of other Maui residents with nowhere else to go. Eventually, Lau got into a shelter, where she stayed for a few months until she said she was recently told she had to move from a more private unit into dorms. She knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable being closer to men she doesn’t know, she said, so she moved back into her car.

“I know if I can sleep in my car and lock the doors, I’m safe,” Lau said.

Last week, every council member who attended the meeting voted to support changing the law to allow residents to eventually sleep on designated county-owned property — including two Maui County leaders who are running for mayor, King, who introduced the proposal, and council member Mike Molina. Another mayoral candidate, former judge Richard Bissen, has also promised that if elected, he wants to lease land so residents living out of their cars can “drive into these lots in the evenings for rest.”

A photograph of shelters on Maui.
Rents have soared in recent years, putting more Maui families at risk of losing their homes. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But the current administration under Mayor Michael Victorino, who’s seeking re-election, isn’t so sure that’s the best option. 

During last week’s meeting, Linda Munsell, the deputy director of the county’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns, said her department wouldn’t be supporting the proposal for a number of reasons. County attorneys have said it could open the government to legal risks and also put it on the hook to pay for security and a bathroom.  

Lastly, if the county stands up such a program, Munsell said, it also needs to ensure social services are available to help people find permanent places to live. 

“I’m trying to make sure that we are moving people in housing and not just making it easier for them to remain homeless,” she told the council.

Some national advocates say safe parking programs can help fill gaps in communities where emergency shelters are already full and affordable rentals are increasingly hard to come by. As housing costs across the U.S. have soared, several cities, particularly those along the West Coast, have looked to establish safe areas where residents can sleep in cars or RVs without fear of getting into legal trouble. 

In 2004, Santa Barbara was one of the first places to stand up such a program, which now manages roughly 150 parking spaces. Since it started, there haven’t been any incidents or damage to parking lots or nearby neighborhoods, according to one of the nonprofits that helps run the program.

In Maui County, there are only around 360 beds available in shelters to serve everyone who might need them, according to the state. Last year, outreach workers here counted about 740 people living on the streets or in shelters, although that number is likely an underestimate. Meanwhile, other programs geared toward housing people long term, like helping them secure apartments, are under so much demand that it can sometimes take months to get their help.

“Whether it’s for a few days or a few weeks or months, you have to have some way to keep homeless people safe,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “That’s what a safe parking program does.”

On Maui, the council is scheduled to vote on the proposal once again in early August, and if the proposal moves forward, the county will ask organizations from across the community to submit proposals on how they’d run a parking lot. That’s when officials will hash out the details on where it might be set up and how many people will be allowed to sleep there. 

Even though there are still a lot of unknowns, when Lau returned to the harbor after Thursday’s council meeting, things felt different. 

Jessica Lau poses for a portrait in front of her Scion, which she’s lived in after losing her apartment. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

She hopes that her time there is limited. She’s working a lot more this summer, and with each month’s paychecks, she’s getting closer to having the money for the first month’s rent and deposit. She said her boss offered to let her sleep on a couch at the office in the meantime, but she doesn’t want people to stare — and knows she can take care of herself. 

In the last two years, she’s learned how to get by. Like how she can park her car at an angle so that the ocean breeze always blows through the cracked windows. Or, how she can set out a fishing pole in front of her car, so she won’t be hassled by police.

As the wind whipped around her, she stood in front of the boat ramp and beamed: “This is the new beginning.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial 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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