Where I Live: Hawai‘i’s Kauhale Homeless Initiative

Jul 10, 2019

The federal government says no state in the country has a more severe homeless problem than Hawai’i. That’s been the case for a number of years—but the approach to dealing with the issue is changing. One idea is to move hundreds of people at a time into new communities. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa found that Lieutenant Governor Josh Green is embracing a Kauhale village model that some homeless are eager to try.

John Kaulupali greets his dog, Lucky, at the start of one of Ka Po'e o Kaka'ako's weekly park clean ups.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

“We’re the diehards out here.  We refuse to go to any shelter.”

John Kaulupali has his reasons for staying on the street. He’s one of the homeless in Kaka‘ako trying to organize themselves into a community.

"We’re hoping for a piece of land, a small parcel, where we can start building a community and building relationships with that community."

Relationships as the basis for change is what the Kauhale model is all about.  Kauhale means homestead in Hawaiian, a compound with separate structures for eating, sleeping, cooking, etc.  The Kauhale village model is similar with tiny private residences for singles and couples, and shared facilities.  Once basic utilities are installed, hundreds of people could move in---together.

There's the Kauhale idea on the left side of a recent idea board.
Credit LG Josh Green

“We look at the kauhale as one of the signature pieces that has to be done,” says Lt. Governor Josh Green who has just completed a statewide tour of homeless facilities.  He says permanent supported housing and Housing First are essential, building for the middle class is also required.

"And that final large swath of people that are somewhere constantly unsheltered or going to a shelter for a couple days or being picked up by the police really frequently, they need somewhere to go.  And it’s not reasonable to expect they’re suddenly going to come up with a bunch of rent.  It just doesn’t happen." 

Green points out, there aren’t enough Section 8 vouchers, or spaces to move into.

“So this is meant to fit that space. It can be done quickly, it can be done regionally, It can be done with a lot of partners, and it has a certain large cultural component to it."

Green is looking at unused government land, with Hawai‘i’s emergency proclamation speeding expected $2-$4 million dollar infrastructure upgrades.

"If you get the land, you can move within 4-6 months.  We are already working with a private entity called Home Aid which will bring a lot of extra resources.  They’re a large amalgamation of all of the developers who are quite generous, Castle and Cooke and other developers, they want to give back. I just got out of a major meeting with state leaders, City and County leaders, Attorney General, deputies, all to get on the same page, and each to their own."

Lt. Governor Josh Green (l) talks with Larry, a homeless veteran on Moloka'i.

Green maintains something like Kauhale are needed in Honolulu’s urban core, in Waimānalo, and in Wai‘anae.  On Hawai‘i Island, Green says at least two are needed, in Kona and in Hilo or the Hilo/Puna area to help volcano displacements.  He says Maui could also use a Kauhale village, and he has the Governor's support for the idea.

"The goal is always permanent housing but most people are not ready.  If someone’s been on the street for 3, 4, 8 years, and has PTSD, maybe he’s been assaulted, and they have addiction, there‘s no chance they’re going to be ready for sustained housing in a traditional setting.  That’s very rare.

But in the Kauhale model, there’s a sense of community that’s built.  That’s very central to our goal.  We’re working with community organizers like Hui Aloha to get them ready as a community to have their own rules, to be self governing.”

I asked Kaulupali, Why would this work?

What will help is that you become part of a bigger thing. This is going to be your home.  Naturally, you’re going to do everything possible to keep your place nice and tidy. 

And there are rules in place if you don’t. Coming up, new initiatives that offer hope to the homeless and the rest of the community too.