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Pandemic Opens Up Housing For Homeless On Maui

noe tanigawa
Deck of a home at Hale Makana O Waiale affordable housing project. It sits on 12 rolling acres in Wailuku adjacent to KHAKO offices. About 700 people, singles to families, live in the 30 low rise apartments, sharing amenities including a 3 acre park.

The absence of tourists in Hawai'i' is affecting Maui's housing market. The tourism  drop and its ripple effects are among the reasons over 900 homeless people were moved into permanent housing on Maui since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Service agencies are working harder now to keep people in the homes they currently have.

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai’i Public Radio
Hawai’i Public Radio
This familiar bus on a residential street is a flamboyant example of the many vehicles that serve as living quarters in Kihei and Ma'alaea.

Ka Hale a Ke Ola, KHAKO, offers emergency shelter and run affordable housing and job programs, but Executive Director Monique Ibarra says the organization's role is shifting with the demands of the pandemic.


"What a radical difference. Before COVID, people had jobs, it was very difficult to hire," says Ibarra. Now, problem number one for her clients has been accessing unemployment insurance. KHAKO, she says, now spends more time connecting people with housing assistance, where demand is increasing.

"We've actually gotten additional funding from the county which we're very pleased about," says Ibarra."So we can help a wider amount of people in the community," 

Keeping people in their homes has also become a major objective for Family Life Center in Kahului. Family Life is the major homeless outreach provider on Maui. Director Maude Cumming says vulnerable people now are different from the homeless clients they usually serve.

"We are encouraging them," Cumming says. "'Don't wait until unemployment runs out. Look at work you may not have considered.'"

Cumming and Ibarra are not seeing increases in homelessness or in demand for services. In fact, combined efforts on Maui put 914 people into permanent housing in the last six months.

"We're very proud of it," says Ibbarra. "Catholic Charities also opened up their low-income senior housing, so it's really been a great six months for individuals to get housed. And there's so much assistance right now, that's, I believe, why we're being successful in helping our individuals get into housing."

Incredibly, Ibarra says, but predictably, rent is coming down on Maui. "We've seen those who own vacation rentals, because they aren't getting tourists into their rentals, they're converting to long-term housing. We don't know how long that will last, but for now it's working."

Cumming says, the economy has leveled the playing field somewhat for renters. Renters sponsored by agencies like hers come with supports that are starting to look attractive to landlords.

Cumming remembers the 2008-2009 recession. "People would say to me, 'No, I just going collect. I can do this for 18 months or whatever, the time kept getting extended.' And then, when it didn't end for a while, those people were stuck."

"I don't want to see that same kind of thing happening again, " says Cumming, "where people think, 'It will be over shortly. I'll be fine. I can still sustain this standard of living."

A look at the income documentation needed for housing services shows potential trouble ahead for their clients, says Cumming. "For about half of the population, I'm really concerned because I don't see any change in their spending habits." 

Cumming thinks now is the time to move to cheaper quarters, or perhaps into group living. She says people are starting to do this. But others may not recognize the need to change their lifestyle.

"We're concerned that when the CARES money runs out, they won't be able to afford rent because they haven't considered other options," says Cumming.

Meanwhile, service providers recommend connecting early. County and state programs that keep Maui residents in their homes can be contacted through Family LIfe Center, Ka Hale A Ke Olaor Maui County Human Concerns. 

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