What It’s Like To Be Homeless On Maui

By Netra Halperin

When Janice (not her real name) worked in Washington D.C. as a federal grants program manager, it never occurred to her that she’d end up on the other side of social services. She wouldn’t have believed that she’d find herself homeless. Janice’s journey from social service administrator to social service recipient began when, as a bureaucrat in Campaign Finance under the Clinton Administration, she became a “whistle blower” and lost her job.

Then she and her husband moved to Boston, and their marriage fell apart. Janice told her husband that she wanted to divorce and move back to Oahu. She said he couldn’t accept this and became violent. Janice returned to Hawaii anyway.

“I feel safest here,” Janice said, motioning to her location in plain sight, on the sidewalk, with plenty of witnesses, “while I look for an attorney to help me file a civil lawsuit against my husband’s domestic violence.”

Of course, homelessness isn’t limited to Oahu. Maui has its fair share. For Heather and Annie, who are both currently living at Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center in Wailuku, it was drugs that caused them to first lose their children, and then wind up homeless. They both receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and food stamps. But due to the high cost of food on Maui, they still run out by the end of the month. They have classes at the shelter during the week; if they have bus money (bus passes are too expensive) on the weekend, they take public transit over to St. Theresa’s Hale Kau Kau soup kitchen.

Heather, 31 years old, still has her young son, Dakota in her care. “I have been clean for 3 years,” she said with pride. “My family was in Hurricane Katrina. I came to Maui because a friend told me that she had a room to rent, but when I got here, the house was full. I lost all my ID, and Louisiana can’t find people’s paperwork. Now I can’t even take Dakota to the doctor.”

Without ID, it’s also difficult to get a job. Heather lives on Social Security (SSDI) payments as she has “post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] from being molested as a child.”
Annie also lost both of her children to foster care due to drug addiction. Her son is in foster care in South Carolina and her daughter is in care here on Maui. “I graduated from Drug Court two years ago, but still can’t get my daughter back from the system,” Annie said.

Then there is Troy, a cook. “I don’t feel comfortable at shelters,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the ‘shelter system’ so I sleep at the beach.”

Every day Troy takes a shower at the beach and shows up for work as a volunteer at Hale Kau Kau. Troy expressed gratitude for “Jimmy [Hale Kau Kau’s head chef] and the Church.” Troy wants to give back to the community for the nourishment and companionship that the program has given him—though of course he would happily accept a paying position if one of his job interviews pans out.

Before coming to Maui, Troy had a landscaping business in California, but when gas prices shot up as the economy plummeted, his company folded. Because of the intense sun exposure that comes with the job of landscaper, Troy contracted skin cancer. He came to Maui to find work, and also because the island is home to a good dermatologist, with whom he is attempting to work out a payment plan. “Luckily my daughter can send me a little money from time to time,” he said, beaming.

Moving to Maui to find work is a common story. That’s what happened to the young couple, Dustin and Christian, who came here with their baby, Kadalynn, with the promise of a job that never materialized. They soon found themselves homeless. This prompted Dustin’s mother, Terry, who owns a home in Aberdeen, Washington to come help.

“I dropped everything, scraped together air fare, and flew to Maui to help my son and his family” she said. Terry is assisting them in applying for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) while her son looks for a job. “We had to choose between renting a room and renting a car,” Terry said. “We decided that having transportation was more important.”

But those who had solid careers on Maui sometimes end up homeless as well. For Darlene, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning, and previously worked as a planner with Maui County, it was a neck injury, anxiety and three DUIs that unraveled her life.

After she and her husband split, she sought a rental on her own. But because of her extensive knowledge of zoning ordinances and building codes, she couldn’t help but notice violations. This didn’t go over well with her landlords. Now she’s living in her car, but continues to dream.

“I still have goals,” she told me. “When this is over I want to start a non-profit dedicated to promoting science and engineering education for children.”

Jeff, 56, has called his truck home for 20 of the 33 years he’s lived on Maui. He described himself as a “free spirit, no strings attached” guy. He doesn’t want to own anything except his truck, which keeps him mobile. He pays for his meager expenses with SSDI, which he has been receiving ever since he was struck by a drunk driver in 2003. The accident put him in a comma for six days and gave him brain damage. Since then he has been distraught. “I’ve often contemplated suicide and I have severe depression.” he said. Though he did muse that Maui is “not a bad place to be homeless. Maui people are spoiled, if you can get to the place.”

The common thread running throughout these peoples’ stories is that it took time for them to wind up homeless. There were numerous events which, spiraling downwards, one on top of another, led first to the loss of an adequate income and then to them no longer affording to pay rent or a mortgage and finally to them winding up on the streets.

Because there are approximately 658 homeless people on Maui–up nearly 65 percent from 2010–as well as 394 additional people who live in shelters, there are numerous programs that provide free meals. One of them, St. Theresa Church’s Hale Kau Kau in Kihei, has been around 20 years. It’s Maui’s only daily “soup kitchen.”

According to head chef, Jimmy Osaki (former kitchen manager Marie Osaki’s son), anyone in need of a hot meal can get one at St. Theresa’s Church. In addition, volunteers (who supply their own vehicle and gas) deliver 50-60 meals per day to South Maui shut-ins, since Meals on Wheels doesn’t deliver to Kihei. Hale Kau Kau’s outreach program focuses on elderly and disabled residents.

Many of Hale Kau Kau’s guests are families, or the working poor. Since wages nationally have remained stagnant while prices for food, gas and housing have risen in the last several decades, many people, even if they work full time, can’t afford basic necessities. This phenomena is exaggerated in Hawaii with the price of shipping added to most products, and excessive land costs increasing home prices and rents.

Given today’s high unemployment and escalating foreclosures, the number of homeless and working poor on Maui has gone up in recent years. A year ago, Jimmy served 80 meals per day on site at Hale Kau Kau. Now he does 100 meals. With a mix of pride and sadness he recounted that he recently, “served 202 meals, between St. Theresa’s and delivery. That was the most ever.”

Over the last decade, state government has increased its attempts to reduce homelessness. But many currently available social services are now at risk. Senator Suzanne Chun-Oakland, Chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, is urging her colleagues to appropriate $20 million more for the rental housing trust fund to build affordable rentals and purchase vacant multi-unit housing, and $6 million to assist with rapid re-housing—housing placement and services to help homeless families and individuals obtain and maintain housing, as well as assist landlords and renters in having successful relationships. Chun-Oakland would also like $3.2 million to maintain homeless shelters in the state and $90 million in bond financing for public housing rehabilitation.

“The vast majority of my work is with my legislative and county colleagues and the community (non-profits, foundations, realtors, property owners, homeless people, businesses, churches and concerned individuals) through volunteer efforts to help private-sector landlords upgrade vacant rental units; help Hawaii Public Housing Authority upgrade units that require cleaning and painting; and help identify opportunities for people to rent units with landlords and realtors who step forward to be a part of the solution,” Chun-Oakland said.

Representative John Mizuno, Chair of the House Human Services Committee, agrees. “The key to resolving homelessness is better coordination between county, state and federal governments,” he said. “Providing affordable housing is crucial. There are already developers receiving state and federal tax credits to provide affordable rental housing. These programs need to be improved and expanded. For instance, currently, developers of new affordable housing projects are required to keep units within federal affordable housing guidelines for only 10 years. For future projects, the requirement should be raised to 15 years. The state should give incentives to already existing developments to prolong the length of time that rental units remain affordable. When the affordability period ends, many of these people become homeless. While subsidizing these units isn’t the silver bullet, it will certainly help.”

Representative Rida Cabanilla, Chair of the House Committee on Housing, found that a community-wide attitude of “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) was hampering solving homelessness, so she produced a 30-second public service announcement to encourage residents to “Remember, we are all one ohana.” She also introduced HB309, which would waive height restrictions for developers who build within the Honolulu Downtown core and then rent 20 percent of the units at affordable rates. The idea was to curtail urban sprawl while encouraging the development of affordable housing.

She also introduced HB753 to fund homeless parking lots in various locations around the State. She modeled the bill after New Beginnings, a program in Santa Barbara, California that provides between 100 and 400 safe evening parking spaces. This allows the working homeless to stay in their vehicles at night. But every location that Cabanilla has proposed for this program has been, as she noted, “shot down by neighbors.” Both bills are awaiting re-introduction next session.

Last month Marc Alexander, Coordinator of Governor Neil Abercrombie’s Task Force on Homelessness, unveiled a 90-day plan to reduce homelessness. “The effort will focus on the chronically homeless, as they are the most vulnerable and needy,” Alexander said.

This is the theory of the “Housing First” program: if chronically homeless people are given a place to live, other exorbitant cost, such as emergency room visits, jail stays and Child Protective Service interventions can be reduced.

“Helping these people off the beaches and out of shop doorways will also improve the appearance of neighborhoods, which will help the community at large,” he added. “[I] would like to encourage people who want to help the homeless to focus their efforts on programs that are effective in the long run. For instance, it is better to donate to, or volunteer to assist in a meal program than to feed homeless people in the park.”

It’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged when dealing with people who are so poor they cannot afford a place to live. Social service, educational, recreational, cultural, and artistic endeavors are all fighting for an ever-decreasing supply of taxpayer and philanthropist-supplied crumbs.

How did it get this way? Technology seems to be advancing at an exponential pace, and yet why are so many people’s standard of living declining?

Why is our economy so bad? Will it get worse? Can we, as individuals do anything about it?

Asking these questions reminds me of renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can make a difference, indeed, that is the only thing that ever has,” she said.

Mead didn’t lose hope, and neither must we.