Agency workers offer assistance to people living at Baldwin Beach Park

‘We have no place to go’ - County has ordered campers to vacate area by May 23

Baldwin Beach Park camper Cindy Gomes sits outside her tent last week and shares her story. About 100 homeless people live around the park, Maui County officials said. The campers have been told they need to vacate the area May 23 after the county received months of public complaints over trash, drugs and disturbances. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

PAIA — “You live out here?” Jean Okudara asked the young man standing outside the Baldwin Beach Park bathrooms.

“Not really,” he said, looking hesitantly at the table where Okudara and some Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center staff were seated.

“Well, if you decide you want to get shelter, call us up,” Okudara said, handing him a waterproof pouch filled with phone numbers. “You like snacks? Chocolate’s good, yeah?”

The man agreed, took the food and wandered off.

“Take it easy. Call us, man,” Okudara implored.

Ka Hale A Ke Ola housing retention specialist Mary Nakooka and housing program director Joy Rucker speak with a Baldwin Beach Park camper. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Upward of 100 homeless people live around Baldwin Beach Park, according to the county, and social service agencies are trying to prepare them to leave their extended campsite. On May 2, the county posted a notice to vacate by May 23, following months of public complaints over trash, drugs and disturbances.

So, early Wednesday, Ka Hale A Ke Ola staff brought bags of toiletries, packets of instant oatmeal and saimin, and a message: there are open beds at the shelter.

“They don’t believe that they can come to us,” said Monique Yamashita, chief executive officer of Ka Hale A Ke Ola. “They used to have to come to us being clean and sober, and they don’t have to anymore.”

Under the state’s push toward a “housing first” model, agencies around Hawaii are changing their approach to outreach and striving to meet new goals. But there’s renewed pressure now that they have 60 to 90 days to get people out of shelters and into permanent housing.

“We have the pressure and the residents have the pressure, too, because as much a we’d like them to stay longer if they can, the impetus is getting them housing as fast as we can,” Yamashita said. “And what is the one thing we have a lack of on Maui? Affordable housing.”

A cluster of tents rests in the shade of ironwood trees last week at Baldwin Beach Park -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

‘Time to check out’

People living at the beach park said Wednesday that they have little choice but to be there.

Cindy Gomes, 56, resides in small tent at the edge of Paia Bay. She was born and raised in Pukalani, but when she moved to the Mainland around 2003, her sister sold the family home.

“When I came back, I had no place to go,” Gomes said.

Gomes did pet grooming, waitressing and sales before a bad back put her out of a job. Because she couldn’t qualify for a welfare check, she has no source of income.

“The economy is so expensive. It’s ridiculous,” Gomes said.

So Gomes ended up at the beach, where she became the “aunty,” cooking meals for people on her portable stove, handing out drinks and cigarettes. But when others started to steal from her, she moved farther down the shore. Even so, she said, most people are living there peacefully.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “We have no place to go.”

One man who gave his name as Moon Earthwalker said he decided to live at the beach because it was the only way he’d have money leftover for himself.

“I’m permanently disabled, and I live on a fixed income,” he said. “To be able to afford any kind of housing or anything like that is almost fictitious.”

Earthwalker lost his Denver apartment in a fire a few years ago and started moving around after that. He came to Baldwin Beach four months ago and said many there are on fixed incomes like him. According to the Social Security Administration website, that means up to $735 a month for an individual and $1,103 for a couple.

“That’s our biggest challenge, is for the people who are on a fixed income,” said Joy Rucker, Ka Hale A Ke Ola director of housing programs. “I think people have money, but I don’t know that they have enough money to rent and live. So that’s the question. I could be sheltered, but then I have nothing (else).”

However, according to the county Department of Housing and Human Concerns, 90 percent of the population at Baldwin Beach Park is traveling campers from the Mainland. And, social services found that “about 70 percent are able-bodied males who can work if they want to,” said David Nakama, county homeless coordinator.

“The situation at Baldwin park is unique, and I would definitely not classify it as kicking out the needy or homeless,” Nakama said.

He explained that it’s different from “the many local homeless that we work with at other locations who suffer from a physical or mental disability, and are in need of social services to get back on their feet. We have sought out the few actual chronically homeless at Baldwin and are offering services to them.”

In response to comments from some homeless people that the county was sweeping the beach to appease tourists, county spokesman Rod Antone said that “100 percent of the complaints about Baldwin park have been from local residents.”

“Ironically, the reason we’re kicking the group out is because most of them are tourists themselves, who seem to think Baldwin is their own personal party beach where they can stay for free and can do whatever they want,” Antone said. “That’s not going to fly anymore. It’s time to check out.”

Staying housed

Meanwhile, agencies are trying to get creative in finding people housing. Despite the pressure of the new state guidelines, the “housing first” approach is generating success, said Maude Cumming, executive director of the Family Life Center, which also has reached out to the Baldwin park homeless.

Workers at the center do outreach work daily. In the past, they asked what kind of mental health, substance abuse and other services a person might need. Now, they simply ask: Would you like our help with housing?

“If they say yes, then we proceed,” Cumming said. “If they say no, we say, ‘We’ll be back.’ But we focus on the ones that are really interested in housing, and then we’ll come back.

“We had our doubts at first, but we found that it does work, although it takes an intense amount of case management once the person is housed,” Cumming added.

Having housing motivates people to seek help for other problems, she said. People are willing to learn how to better budget their finances so they can afford rent. Others who might not have wanted to enter drug treatment before will do so now “because they know they have some place to come back to.”

It’s a lot of work to keep people housed, but some landlords appreciate having case managers who they can call when there’s trouble.

“They know if you have any problem, you call us first and we’ll help resolve the issue,” Cumming said. Landlords “don’t want to have to deal with problems, and they want their rent paid on time. Those are things we’ll offer.”

At Ka Hale A Ke Ola, the goal has always been to get people into housing, but now they have a few of months instead of two years to transition out of the shelter, Yamashita said. In the past, people took about a year to 18 months to leave on average. In January 2016, the shelter started putting people on a 90-day track to get housing.

“If they had barriers, they could stay longer,” Yamashita said. “That’s the most important thing the community needs to know. We’re not exiting our residents just because it’s the 60-day mark. We’ll work with them as long as they’re looking for housing.”

Like Family Life Center, Ka Hale A Ke Ola sends staff to work with landlords to make sure tenants stay housed and that “there’s not more barriers that are put up for them.”

If the agency can’t meet its outcome measures, such as 85 percent occupancy and 20 percent of participants increasing their income within a one-year period, it could lose funding, Yamashita said. Ka Hale A Ke Ola has 249 total beds at its Wailuku shelter and 185 total beds at its Lahaina shelter. Yamashita was not able to provide bed availability because the number fluctuates often but said the shelters “have more units open than we normally would have had in the past.”

Convincing people to come to a shelter isn’t easy when conditions are near perfect at the beach, said Mary Nakooka, a housing retention specialist.

“This is what they’re comfortable doing,” she said. “However, some of them don’t even know about us, so if we came out here and say, ‘Hey, this is us,’ at least we’re giving them an option. . . . Even if it’s not the 23rd. What if in a month from now they say, ‘Hey, I’m really tired of this’? They’ve got this package (with our number) in their hand.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at