Eighteen temporary housing units are ready to be built for the homeless in Kona, but where they will be built remains to be seen.
“There was a rumor out there that we were planning on building it on Pawai Place, which is totally false,” said Sharon Hirota, the Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim’s executive assistant in charge of homelessness issues.
That rumor prompted numerous phone calls and letters to the newspaper and officials from residents and business owners already frustrated and concerned about the growing number of people and tents at the entrance to The Friendly Place, a point of contact for homeless and at-risk homeless in West Hawaii operated by HOPE Services Hawaii that is at capacity amid the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home order.
“We need to relocate the transients living in their make shift tents on the sidewalk to a place where they have access to facilities and are provided with holistic care,” said Stefanie Gubser, operations manager for Manini Holdings LLC in a West Hawaii Today letter to the editor.
Mattson Davis, proprietor of ULU Development and Magics Beach Grill, called the “situation outside” of the facility “untenable.”
“Since the sweep on Old Airport about 21 days ago there are approximately 40-50 people living along the sidewalk/street in make shift structures with no physical distancing. At night the numbers swell with illegal activity, drinking and drugging, Davis wrote in an April 29 letter to the editor. “The smell of urine and feces has never been more pungent along with unwanted activity that has ramped up.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she has been hearing the concerns from merchants as well.
“I feel for the property owners on Pawai. I’ve been in contact with most of them. I just ask for their patience as we try to work out finding the right place,” said Villegas.
But, finding a place to build the tiny temporary houses has proved challenging, according to Hirota. The units would be similar to the two-person units the county purchased from HPM and built in Hilo in April.
“We were looking at Old Airport, but put a pause on it because we don’t think that is the most appropriate space,” she said. “If the mayor decides to open up Old A, I don’t want to put all the manpower into setting up a structure that has to be taken down in two weeks. We don’t want to build something and then knock on the door and say sorry we’re taking this down if we don’t have a next step for them then what are we doing to them? What are we doing to the community?”
Hirota said the county is looking for other sites to erect the shelters. They are seeking suggestions from the community and are looking at every possible opportunity to find space. Preferably, a site would be graded and have access to water.
“Anybody who is willing to give us a site, we are not restricting it to county land,” she said. “If there is a private landowner that says ‘here you can have an acre of my land for now’ we would gratefully explore that.”
Villegas stressed that by working together a solution can be found.
“I’m confident we will identify a temporary location to place them that will provide an appropriate transition space as we look to Kukuiola for the long-term placement,” said Villegas. “Patience, flexibility and progressive thinking will be imperative as we navigate this move.”
Kukiola is progressing, but physical work has yet to begin, according to Hirota. Groundbreaking is expected sometime in the next few months.
“We are in the final stages of design, so now there’s some engineering work that needs to be completed,” she said. “There was a slight pause, but we are moving ahead with the project to ensure we follow through with that commitment.”
In addition to plans to build tiny units, the county and HOPE Services have already made headway in housing the homeless and those at-risk of homelessness via “shelter in place” projects.
On April 9, HOPE Services secured 40 rooms at the Holiday Inn Express in Kailua-Kona to shelter and started to move dozens of unsheltered individuals and couples to the hotel. As of Friday, 36 individuals were staying in 30 rooms; two rooms serve as offices on each floor, according to HOPE Services Hawaii CEO Brandee Menino. The number of persons at the hotel fluctuates daily as people also leave voluntarily and new persons move in.
“Only one person has been asked to leave for violating the program agreement signed upon entering the HolidayInn Express,” said Menino. “Program participants are expected to abide by hotel rules as regular guests and follow the Governor’s “stay at home” orders, leaving only for essential work/activities and physical exercise.”
HOPE Services also has a “shelter in place” project in Waimea at the Kamuela Inn.
“We are seeking hot meals and food donations for the kupuna temporarily staying there as well,” said Menino. Interested parties can contact Joycelyn at 217-2830 to inquire about volunteering, or to schedule a pickup or dropoff of donations.
In addition to the hotels and tiny houses, Hirota said the county and HOPE Services are always looking for opportunities to connect with people who have units to provide space for rental to the unsheltered.
“Hope Services is in a position where if a landlord is just not ready to enter into a direct agreement with an individual they are willing to do a master lease, where they would rent to Hope, then Hope subleases, ensuring rent is paid,” she said.
Hirota added that HOPE has done a great job in providing a safe place for our most high risk unsheltered individuals.
“It’s all of us coming together to find solutions,” said Hirota. “We hope the community will again come together and help us solve the needs of our unsheltered community members, because they are truly community members.”
Hirota said it’s always been a challenge, but it’s more of a challenge now.
One person helping with that challenge is Eiric Mathson from Project Vision. Every Tuesday and Friday, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., he is setting up a mobile shower unit at Old Kona Airport, north of the swimming pool. He provides soap, shampoo and towels for homeless individuals to take a 15-minute hot shower.
“I’m just trying to get the word out, but sometimes it takes a while for these individuals to build trust,” he said.
Mathson emphasized the showers and toilets are completely disinfected after each use.
“We appreciate all of the work that people are doing in regard to helping us respond to not only the homeless but our community in need as we go through this COVID pandemic,” said Hirota. “We appreciate all of the community based work that has been happening. Just want to say mahalo to everyone.”
Anyone seeking services should contact HOPE Services at 935-3050 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those offering suggestions for a location to place the 18 tiny homes should contact Hirota at email@example.com.
“The work on trying to end homelessness and find housing opportunity has not ended,” said Hirota. “This gives us even more energy to realize how vulnerable our homeless population is.”