Outreach workers are trying to locate those who may have fled the fire or perished, but the search is complicated.

Before the wildfire, Sean Brown and Ben Henrie would park their colorful hygiene trailer outside Lahaina Baptist Church for four hours each week, providing shower and laundry facilities for dozens of homeless people.

After the historic town that had been their most popular location was destroyed by the rapidly spreading flames, they had to find a new spot to park the trailer.

“So many of the people that we serve regularly call Lahaina town home. So now that there’s no Lahaina town, we were like, where do we go?” Henrie said.

The outreach workers ended up in a large homeless camp south of Lahaina.

Maui Rescue Mission’s Ben Henrie, from left, and Sean Brown walk through an unhoused community Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, near Lahaina. The pair are getting back on track to assist the unhoused after a wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Rescue Mission’s Ben Henrie, left, and Sean Brown walk through a homeless camp near Lahaina. The pair is getting back on track to assist homeless people after a wildfire destroyed the historic town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Brown and Henrie are part of Maui Rescue Mission, a Christian group that provides essential services like hygiene and phone charging to Maui’s homeless community. 

They’re also now part of a multi-pronged effort to determine what happened to Lahaina’s homeless population, which had been one of the biggest on Maui, after the deadly Aug. 8 blaze.

County officials who are having a hard time identifying victims of the fire or even confirming the overall number of people who remain unaccounted for have called on families to provide DNA samples to help with the search. The FBI also is trying to piece together incomplete information to compile a master list.

The death toll stood at 115 on Wednesday with much of the worst-hit area along Front Street searched by emergency crews and cadaver-detecting dogs. Many bodies were too badly charred to be recognized.

A Complicated Search

Those problems are compounded when it comes to homeless people.

“Who’s going to give a DNA sample for some of these people? We might never find out what happened to them,” said Jelena Dackovic, who also works with Maui Rescue Mission.

She created a crowdsourced Google spreadsheet specifically geared toward finding homeless people. It lists 32 out of 231 as still missing.

Not many people were around the homeless camp site at Cut Mountain Beach when Henrie and Brown pulled up for a stop with the trailer on Tuesday morning. Presumably they were out collecting supplies, said Henrie.

Cut Mountain already had homeless people living there before the fire. The thinking is that people who had been camping closer to Lahaina retreated south to there, making it a potential location for outreach events.

Maui Rescue Mission’s Ben Henrie, from left, and Sean Brown talk story with a man lying down in his van Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, near Lahaina. The pair are getting back on track to assist the unhoused after a wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina translates to “cruel sun” in English, and as Brown and Henrie searched a large camp south of Lahaina near Cut Mountain in the late morning, it was mostly empty besides for a few people taking shelter in the shade. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

With the windows down — the van’s air conditioning wasn’t working at this point in the day — Brown and Henrie drove farther up West Maui to continue their search.

The air still smelled like ash, and after descending the Lahaina Bypass, the burned-out shells of cars and trucks could be seen off to the side.

Brown next parked the van in the parking lot of the Westin Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali. He and Henrie spotted a homeless man lying in the shade with his dog so they offered him drinks from the cooler along with cans of dog food.

“We’re just trying to look if anybody’s still around … if they got perished in the fire or not,” Brown said to the man.

Brown and Henrie rattled off some names. Through the coconut wireless, the man said he had heard that some got out and were staying in hotel rooms or shelters. One man Brown asked about was apparently seen near a grocery store.

“I knew it,” Brown said.

But a woman apparently did not make it, the man said, despite Brown having heard previously that she managed to escape.

“That’s what somebody was telling me, but I don’t know if that’s true. You always wonder,” Brown said later back in the van.

A search and rescue team member works through one of the destroyed buildings looking for any signs of life. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

‘We Have No One To Give A DNA Sample’

Part of the challenge is that police only reveal the names of the dead after notifying relatives.

Many homeless people might not have anybody listed as next of kin, holding up indefinitely the release of their names. Advocates have to find these things out on their own, said Maui Deputy Public Defender Lindsay Lipp.

“If there were people here that didn’t have family here, that didn’t have anyone who knew them, then how are they going to identify them? So that could be a hard thing in the coming days and weeks,” Henrie said while walking through the homeless camp.

Some do have family, he added, “but not the vast majority.”

Dackovic, who created the list of missing homeless people, said that the initial search period after a disaster wouldn’t be too different for missing homeless people compared to others.

But at some point that starts to change.

“As the time goes and as my list is getting smaller, we come to the point like wait a second, we have no one to give a DNA sample, we have no one to contact,” she said. 

At a press conference Tuesday, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said that if next of kin cannot be determined, “we may over time have to release those names. But we’re trying diligently to be as respectful as we possibly can.”

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier addresses a question during a press conference Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in Wailuku. The gathering was to share information on those missing and the process to identify remains found in the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier spoke during a press conference to discuss the search for people still unaccounted for two weeks after the wildfire in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Like Maui Rescue Mission, Lipp said the public defender’s office has been looking for their homeless Lahaina clients.

Court dates that had been scheduled for the Lahaina courthouse are being rescheduled for the Wailuku courthouse starting in mid-September, she said.

“As we try to reach people to inform them of those changes, it’s becoming apparent that they’re missing,” Lipp said.

Three of these clients have so far been found, she said, though added that she wasn’t exactly sure how since they were not her own clients.

People from her office have been visiting aid distribution sites on West Maui as part of the search but had little success finding anybody. Her office exchanged contact information with the people running the hubs and asked to be in contact if any clients show up, Lipp said.

A Wake-Up Call

A 2023 point-in-time report shows Lahaina as the region with the second most homeless people on the island at 113, after Central Maui.

But almost 2,000 residential structures have since burned to the ground. Rebuilding will take a long time, and undoubtedly there will be people who struggle to find shelter. Already thousands have been displaced, although authorities have provided temporary housing for many.

Much of Maui Rescue Mission’s activity after the fire has been ferrying supplies around the island, Brown said. 

“We’re also trying not to neglect the people that were already homeless,” he said. With so many now displaced, that has been a difficult needle to thread.

The Maui Rescue Mission shower and laundry trailer shows a view off the coast of West Maui, seen here after an outreach event in Kihei. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

The day before the reconnaissance drive, Maui Rescue Mission executive director Scott Hansen and Lauren Henrie, the group’s development and communications consultant, spoke about the hope that this mass loss of housing would serve as a wake-up call that more resources are needed for homeless people.

“We talk about how homelessness is a spectrum,” said Henrie, who is married to Ben Henrie. “Sometimes it’s visible unsheltered people, but sometimes it’s people that are couch surfing with friends.”

The influx of prefabricated housing is a step in the right direction, they said. But Maui has a history of vast socioeconomic inequality, and it will be difficult to escape that inertia.

“Hopefully this is going to change all that,” said Hansen.

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

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author