Homeless people and those who can’t prove their eligibility are being told to leave as Safe Harbor program ends.

Hundreds of Lahaina fire victims being housed in hotels are being told they need to leave, and others are being put on notice that they may be expected to move with only a few days’ notice.

Some, including people who were homeless before the fire, will be transferred to a new temporary shelter near the Kahului airport.

Others included in the group who have been told they will lose access to their rooms within the next 24 hours are those who failed to meet eligibility requirements, including proving that they are residents of Maui County, showing that they lived in a home that was rendered uninhabitable by the fires and registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Brad Kieserman, vice president of operations and logistics for the American Red Cross.

This transition is expected to be completed by 11 a.m. Saturday.

Field tents have been set up as temporary shelters near the Kahului airport for homeless residents affected by the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire. (Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Human Services/2023)

Kieserman said this is occurring because the Safe Harbor program, which allowed survivors to stay in hotels without proving their eligibility, expires at midnight Friday.

Details about the numbers of people affected are still unclear and the mix of people who will be impacted is evolving.

As of noon Friday, about 800 households still in the program needed to contact Red Cross to resolve one or more questions, according to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.

For fewer than 600 of those households, the only remaining eligibility issue was registration with FEMA, he said in a press release. He said that people who wish to remain in housing should contact the Red Cross for assistance.

“Our goal is to offer a safety net that meets the needs of every household that was impacted by this disaster,” Green said. “For many of these families, the Red Cross needs just a single piece of information to make sure that safety net stays in place.”

FEMA officials said the changes in hotel accommodations were being orchestrated by the American Red Cross.

“The American Red Cross is running the sheltering of individuals,” said FEMA spokeswoman Deanna Frazier. “FEMA is just funding it.”

Some housing advocates and disaster relief workers reacted to the news with dismay, calling it insensitive to the needs of fire victims.

Rebekah Uccellini-Kuby, a disaster relief specialist at the Kakoo Maui Relief and Aid Services hub, said that some people had been reluctant to register with FEMA out of fear that it could have adverse consequences for them.

“Those who are being forced to move by the Red Cross are those who didn’t sign up for assistance with FEMA,” she said.

Some residents will have to leave the hotels Saturday morning as the Safe Harbor program expires. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)
Some residents will have to leave the hotels Saturday morning as the Safe Harbor program expires. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

Disaster counselor Kimberley Heart said that many people who survive trauma are unable to function properly for some time, which can make it difficult for them to handle paperwork or identify the documents they need to meet bureaucratic requirements.

She said she was told by support volunteers at the Hyatt Regency that a Red Cross employee had roughly knocked on doors, pushed in without permission and entered the rooms of fire victims, telling them they needed to move out by Saturday, which she said she believed would further traumatize them.

One fire survivor, Jeremy Delos Reyes, told lawmakers Thursday at a state Senate field hearing that he was so upset about receiving an email saying his hotel accommodations could expire on Friday that he felt extreme despair.  

Delos Reyes, who said he had been a teacher at Lahainaluna High School, said that he is carrying a mortgage for a destroyed house while he confronts a housing market where he said two-bedroom apartments are now renting for $6,000 a month.

“I got to figure out where me and my wife will be sleeping tonight,” he told the lawmakers. “You guys are not protecting us.”

Red Cross officials at the event looked at the email he had received and reassured him that he could remain in the hotel where he has been lodged.

Officials said that fire victims had been contacted repeatedly, by text, email and by phone, to make sure they understood the impending deadline.

Some people who have been working with the fire victims said that some formerly homeless residents had made themselves unwelcome guests and neighbors by drinking heavily or using drugs in the hotel.

One fire victim from Lahaina staying at the Hyatt Regency, who declined to give her name, said that she had gotten notification that she was cleared to stay, which she said was a relief. She said she was glad efforts were being made to rid the property of people who she said had falsely represented themselves as Lahaina residents to secure free lodging in a luxury hotel.

“It was a free two-month vacation for them,” she said.

Kieserman, the Red Cross official, said that families staying in hotels had been required to meet with Red Cross volunteers in recent days to determine their eligibility to stay.

More than 2,200 families have met these requirements, officials said.

Field tents are erected to house homeless residents who survived the Lahaina fire. (Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Human Services/2023)

Most of the remaining 7,800 people who have been living in hotels and other temporary accommodations for the past 45 days will be permitted to remain until Feb. 10, a date Red Cross said may be extended based on circumstances at the time.

Single adults who were homeless before the Aug. 8 fires, which killed at least 97 people in Lahaina, need to move out, while homeless families with children will be allowed to stay, Kieserman said.

About 149 people who were in this category on Friday afternoon have the option of going to a new temporary shelter set up by the state Department of Human Services. Located on a flat lot across from the airport, the space would accommodate adult residents and up to two pets each. Residents would be served three meals a day.

Nigel Holderby, spokesperson for Red Cross, said in an email Friday night that the Red Cross was still working to determine how many families would move out of hotels because they did not meet eligibility requirements. 

Kieserman also noted that the Red Cross is waiving the FEMA-registration requirement for families who aren’t U.S. citizens and are undocumented or otherwise unqualified for the FEMA program. They will be able to continue staying in hotels, as long as they check in with a Red Cross volunteer and explain their status.  

“We will pay the cost of the rooms and the meals for those survivors who, but for their citizenship, would be eligible for the program,” he said. “I told the governor that the Red Cross would pay for all of those folks so that there could be equity of treatment here. If you lived in Lahaina, if your home was destroyed, if you worked in Lahaina, and you’re just not a U.S. citizen, you’re still a survivor of the fire.”

Around 150 individuals are in this category, Holderby said. 

Those who are able to stay can remain in their current rooms for now, but some people may need to relocate in the coming days, weeks and months as contracts with some hotels expire and the Red Cross tries to consolidate survivors. 

Currently, of about 39 hotels that are housing survivors on Maui, two have contracts ending after this weekend and five will be renewing with a “step-down” approach that will reduce the number of rooms available over time.

More than half of the hotels have contracts lasting until the end of November or January. 

In the case that a family needs to move hotels, Kieserman said he aims to give them at least five days notice. The Red Cross will also provide those families with tote bags to help them pack and transportation to their new hotel.

Families who do not want to be housed in West Maui because they don’t feel comfortable being near the fire zone will be accommodated in other areas, he said. 

Kieserman said that the Oct. 8 date set by Green for reopening West Maui to tourism would not affect survivors in hotels.

“There’s been no significant increase in hotel bookings on Maui, no significant increase in air travel bookings in Maui, so we have no reason at this point to believe that anything special is going to happen on Oct. 8,” he said. 

Some hotels may also house both survivors and tourists, he said. 

Sen. Angus McKelvey and Rep. Elle Cochran sent a letter to Green on Friday urging him to abandon the Oct. 8 date for the reopening of tourism to West Maui, saying it’s “too much, too soon.”

“While we understand that the economy of our district has been tourism driven, many of us are still trying to process the damage the wildfire has caused,” McKelvey said. “We must recognize the volatility of the situation here on the West Side. For the health and wellbeing of our friends and families, we must delay reopening to tourists. Let’s fully get our people into stable housing before opening our doors en masse to others.”

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

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