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Where I Live: Homeless Community? in Kaka'ako

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

Honolulu welcomes an expected 300 mayors this week for the 87th U.S. Conference of Mayors.  Eight resolutions at the conference take aim at homelessness and housing affordability. They include one sponsored by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who presides over one of the worst homeless situations in the country. That crisis is playing out on the streets in Kaka’ako, where major sweeps have been underway. 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Life on the move is even more challenging in the rain. I had not realized the level of wariness that is required at all times on the street. Aura Reyes repeated many times: If you give them an opportunity, they will take it.
Noe talks with Bill Dorman about the "kauhale" village idea and a report from Neighborhood Board chair Ryan Tam.

Recent sweeps have cleared away about a hundred people who had been living in tarps and tents in Kaka‘ako, along Ala Moana Boulevard.  Neighborhood Board president Ryan Tam reports some have moved across Ala Moana into the Rycroft and Sheridan area.  Others have moved ‘Ewa along Ilalo Street, across from the UH Medical School and the new Entreprenerurs Sandbox.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

After Honolulu's first big rain in a while, I walked down to the tents along the chain link fence at Ilalo and Coral Streets, fronting the Med School.  A group of three, maybe 13 year old boys, sat on buckets, poking the ground with sticks outside a tent.  I haven’t seen this before, teens just sitting around.  One of them told me he liked my watch. John Kaulupali later informed me two gangs of boys have begun terrorizing the other homeless.


John Kaulupali is one of the leaders of Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako, The People of Kaka‘ako, an organization of homeless living in the Kaka‘ako area. It’s rainy, everything’s wet, and Kaulupali’s dog, Lucky, a scarred, grey pit bull, was not a happy camper.

In a grizzled line up of wet tents, drooping canopies, a tarp here, two carts with a tarp in between, even just plastic tied to a tree, inside each shelter is a life, maybe two.

“The challenges are getting the people to unite.  All of these people want to be alone, in their own place, doing their own thing.”

“People were like why join you? We’re asking for a piece of land, a small parcel where we can start building a small community and building relationships with that community.”

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
John Kaulupali, cetner, with his dog, Lucky, at one of the weekly clean ups Ka Po'e o Kaka'ako has held since October 2018.

Since October 2018, a handful of people began meeting Saturday mornings to clean up Kaka‘ako Park, some joined the Neighborhood Watch, and they began generally looking out for each other. Leaders emerged and the people now call themselves Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako, the People of Kaka'ako, they began attending neighborhood Board meetings.

“Our board was really impressed by what they were doing.“

Ryan Tam is chair of the Waik?k? Kaka‘ako neighborhood Board.

“A lesson I took away from this is they needed human relationships to heal.  That was actually what they needed to go to the next step of getting off the street into services and into shelters.”

Kaulupali says the people on the street in Kaka‘ako have been through the shelters, group living, they’ve tried the solutions out there.  He was ejected from IHS because of what he calls a technicality, he couldn't stand the bedbugs at Next Step shelter, and Lighthouse in Waiphahu did not have a family-like or suitable atmosphere.  Kaulupali says many of the others refusing current shelter options, have comprehensible reasons.  However, at one time 89 of the homeless in Kaka'ako bought in to this idea of private space and shared facilities based on the Hawaiian kauhale home system.

The idea is to transplant their community to a plot of land where they can live Kauhale style, that is, in the style of traditional Hawaiian homes, which were a compound with different hale (structures) for cooking, eating, sleeping, etc. 

It combines personal spaces with communal facilities, in a resource conscious way.  Under the leadership of Twinkle Borge, Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae, the settlement at Wai‘anae Boat Harbor, is doing the same thing.

They’ve organized as a community, and private donors are offering $300 thousand dollars toward a new settlement if Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae can match that.  Crowdsourcing is underway right now at Alohaliveshere.org, where you will find a community plan for Pu‘uhonu o Wai‘anae Mauka.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“This is going to be a win-win situation,” says Kaulupali.  “The City wanted us out of sight out of mind, okay we can accommodate you.” 

“When we first talked to them, they had about 40 people who had committed to move, out there.  A few weeks later, they had actually gotten 80 people to sign up,” says Tam.

Lieutenant Governor Josh Green has led efforts to find a piece of land with basic security, water and sanitary facilities. 

Kaulupali says he and the Ka Po‘e leaders can make the new settlement work—if the current sweeps do not destroy the community they’ve created. “This is not going to happen unless you get a group of people that’s motivated to keep building a community.”

According to Ryan Tam, “Two weeks ago the City swept the ma kai Gateway park and the houseless community began to scatter and disintegrate.  We started seeing more houseless people up further ma uka, over by Sheridan park, King Street.  Of course residents in that area weren’t happy about this at all.” 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Last night, only James Koshiba from Hui Aloha and Aura Reyes from Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako made it to the Neighborhood Board meeting.  Reyes managed to bike over in the downpour, while other group leaders were busy reinforcing tents and tarps for the non-stop rain last night.

Proposed resolutions tacking homelessness at the upcoming U.S. Mayors’ Conference include ideas to link housing funding to transportation and other infrastructure spending, and more support for housing insecurity, to help people before they become homeless.  

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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