The county is trying to address an increase in homelessness despite persistent NIMBYism.

For formerly homeless people like Kimberly Souza, securing a place to live is life-changing to a degree that’s difficult to articulate. 


The 50-year-old Kauai native was one of the first residents of the county’s first supportive housing development launched in December 2020 for people transitioning from homelessness into permanent housing. In addition to temporary housing, tenants receive on-site social services, including substance abuse counseling and employment services. 

On Friday, after two and a half years, Souza will move out of Kealaula and into her first permanent home in many years — an affordable studio situated above a Kapaa grocery store.

“I can truly say, had I not received services at Kealaula at the time that I did, I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this room today,” Souza told a room of about 50 people Thursday at Duke’s Restaurant on Kalapaki Beach for a panel discussion on homelessness hosted by the Lihue Business Association.

The goal is to repeat the 30-unit Kealaula project in other Kauai communities. But while transitional housing projects for formerly homeless people tend to garner public support in the abstract, they’re threatened by persistent NIMBYism from residents who don’t want them built down the street from where they live. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, Kauai allowed homeless people to camp at five designated beach parks without fear of violating vagrancy laws. That program was suspended when the threat of the virus subsided. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021)

On Kauai, where the median home price is $1 million, an increasing number of people do not have a house to sleep in at night.

That’s according to the annual point-in-time count, which was published last week and found a 10% uptick in homelessness on Kauai in January 2023 from the same time last year. Volunteers located 488 homeless people across the island on a single night who agreed to participate in the federally mandated survey. 

While the survey does not offer a precise count of the island’s homeless population, it’s an important bellwether of the island’s difficult housing economy used by nonprofit agencies and government policymakers working to tackle the issue.

Gov. Josh Green’s administration is tackling homelessness with a campaign to populate the state with as many as 25 tiny home villages, or kauhale, built in the image of Kamaoku, a kauhale in Barbers Point on Oahu. This model reduces the cost of housing by building private tiny homes around shared kitchen and shower spaces.

The governor has also proposed to expand the state’s Ohana Zones where homeless people could pitch a tent that they live in without being hassled by law enforcement as a measure to help reduce the pressure of homeless people congregating in public parks and beaches.

Green signed an emergency proclamation in January to expedite his homelessness solutions, suspending a series of laws that could have delayed progress on his proposals. But this two-pronged plan to address homelessness remains conceptual unless state legislators choose to fund it.

In the meantime, Dana Hazelton, Green’s Kauai representative, said the administration is collecting names of church groups, private landowners and the like who might wish to use their land to help people on Kauai transition out of homelessness.

HomeAid Hawaii Opens Doors at Kama’okū.
Kamaoku, a kauhale in Barbers Point, serves as one model for what upcoming kauhale could look like. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

NIMBYism is a concern, said Kauai County Housing Director Adam Roversi, referring to the “not in my backyard” sentiment that has been known to hinder Kauai public housing projects.

He explained how during Covid the county had plans to build a 12-unit tiny home project in Waimea, but virtually every citizen who was questioned did not want it.

“So the county abandoned it in the face of overwhelming opposition,” Roversi said. “People liked the idea as long as we put it in the middle of a cane field 20 miles from anywhere where nobody sees it.”

For a transitional housing program for formerly homeless people to be successful, experts say it needs to be located near schools, jobs, doctors, government services and public transportation.

“When people hear that there’s going to be a project developed for homeless people, they think of nightmare scenarios — shopping carts and crime and garbage,” Roversi said. “But if you drive by Kealaula, our supportive housing project, it’s one of the nicest housing developments anywhere on Kauai.”

Kauai Housing Director Adam Roversi says the county’s supporting housing project is one of the nicest housing developments on island. (Courtesy: Randy Gonce)

Affordable housing projects on Kauai tend to garner similar opposition. But the need is urgent. 

The housing market is unaffordable for many locals. And the going rate for a modest housing rental has reached a fever pitch and Kauai real estate agents say there has been a net loss of rental property inventory as home owners during the pandemic sold their rental properties as home values skyrocketed. 

The number of affordable housing units on track to be built next year by the county or private developers is about 400 — a record high, according to Roversi. But Kauai will need roughly 2,500 additional housing units by 2030, according to a housing demand study by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism

A perfect storm of high housing costs and limited supply on Kauai is helping to stoke an exodus of workers from the island that’s impacting nearly every sector — from restaurants and banks to schools and medical centers. It’s also fanning fears that the island’s affordability crisis is reshaping local culture and demographics in ways not easily measured but widely felt.

“Everywhere I go I see signs that say, ‘We’re hiring,’” said Mark Perriello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. “And I really do not know who they’re talking to because there’s just no one left to fill these jobs because people can’t afford to live here.”

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