West side campground for homeless moves forward

Shalia Keahi (center), the on-site manager for a proposed campground for the homeless in Lahaina, along with project advisers Lori Sablas and Cliff Libed, thank Maui Planning Commission members after the commission approved a special use permit for the campground Tuesday. The project, spearheaded by the Hoomoana Foundation, will head to the County Council for review of a conditional permit request. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — A proposed campground in Lahaina for homeless people received a special use permit from the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday, triggering tearful hugs among supporters who have been trying to push the project forward for almost three years.

Commission members voted 5-0 to approve the special use permit and recommend passage of a conditional permit, which the Maui County Council has the final say on.

Almost 40 people testified Tuesday, most in favor. Supporters said it was a creative solution that could help families get back on their feet, while opponents thought it was only a “Band-Aid” on a much bigger problem.

Even county officials were split — the Planning Department supports the campground, while the Department of Housing and Human Concerns has reservations.

“If we don’t try things, if we don’t step out, we will just continue to have the same homeless population that we have now,” Planning Director Will Spence said. “I like this project because it’s a controlled environment, where right now you have encampments that nobody knows about until you actually go in to clean it up.”

Spearheaded by the nonprofit Ho’omoana Foundation, the Kauaula Campground would take up 7.9 acres of a 22.7-acre parcel bordered by Hokiokio Place and the Lahaina bypass. The camp itself would cover 2 acres, with 6 acres reserved for a farm and garden. Ho’omoana would start with eight pods (a small space with a tent and secure storage box) and a maximum of 26 campers. If the one-year pilot project goes well, Ho’omoana would request more pods; the eventual vision is 26 pods and up to 80 campers.

The camp would include restrooms, showers and a cooking area. Campers would have to be vetted to ensure they are “physically and mentally willing and able to help themselves,” said Dean Frampton, a project consultant with F&W Land. They would have to sign contracts agreeing to follow certain conditions, from keeping their pods clean to not possessing any drugs or weapons.

Generally, campers would pay $10 a day, but no one would be turned away if they couldn’t pay, Frampton said. He expected people to stay no longer than three months.

Two on-site managers would live on a cottage on the grounds — husband and wife Kawi and Shalia Keahi. Shalia Keahi once struggled with substance abuse, and Kawi Keahi was homeless and addicted to meth before both found God and people who pulled them out of addiction. Now they’re involved in prison and transformation ministries at King’s Cathedral.

Supporters of the project pointed out that it was relatively small and would run for only a year initially, giving Ho’o-moana and neighbors a chance to tinker with the program.

Testifier Stephen Smith said he’s been going to meetings for three years at which the county, state and nonprofits have discussed homelessness.

“You know what they keep telling us at these meetings? ‘We need private entities to come in and help us,’ ” Smith said. “Here’s somebody that’s coming to do it. He’s not asking for anything but approvals. I think it’s about time that we step forward and support the programs.”

Neighbors, however, have raised concerns over safety and problems with homeless people already living in the area. Scott Naganuma, general manager of the Puamana Community Association, said that the stream next to the campground is littered with discarded furniture, food waste and syringes.

Others were concerned about future growth on the land due to the fact that developer Peter Martin is president of the foundation and owns 51 percent of the 22-acre parcel. But Frampton pointed out that the permits are only for the campground; they don’t change the site’s agricultural zoning or allow Ho’omoana to add a business or housing development.

The county Department of Housing and Human Concerns was among the voices calling for the project to be deferred Tuesday. Michele Navarro Ishiki, homeless program specialist for the department’s Homeless Program Division, said that the project “appears to be more of a temporary fix, rather than a long-term permanent solution,” and should undergo more research.

Ishiki worried the campground would face the same consequences as Camp Kikaha, an experimental homeless safe zone on Hawaii island that officials say has had some “negative impacts.”

“One, if given the opportunity to live in such a way, they will self-govern,” Ishiki said. “Two, they are not looking for housing solutions, or even accepting of social services. Many of those left at the encampments are those who only seek charitable services.”

But Frampton and the Keahis said this project is different. For one, people will have to prove that they’re working to improve themselves, such as seeking employment or treatment for addiction. A manager would always be on site, and Shalia Keahi said the chance to work in the farm and garden would give people a sense of purpose and community.

The department also was concerned that the project wouldn’t align with the statewide push toward Housing First, a program that focuses on getting people into housing before connecting them with social services. Frampton said Ho’omoana endorses Housing First “100 percent,” but the lack of housing calls for some temporary solutions.

“We kind of see this as ‘Housing First Lite,’ ” Frampton said. “We’re putting people in safe places. . . . It’s not permanent. The goal is upward mobility.”

Ho’omoana has made several changes to its original proposal in response to concerns, including moving the camp away from the streambed, eliminating commercial camping for the first year and prioritizing women, children and West Maui residents.

Since it came before the commission in July 2015, the project has been tangled up in legal disputes. The Pu’unoa Homeowners Association argued that a decision on the campground should fall to the state Land Use Commission, not Maui County. After a 2nd Circuit judge ruled that the county could make a decision on the special use permit, Pu’unoa attorneys appealed and are currently awaiting a ruling from the Intermediate Court of Appeals, said Deborah Wright, who represents the homeowners. Wright thought a vote should be deferred until then.

But Spence said it could take six to nine months before the council takes action on the campgrounds, giving the court time to make a ruling. Commission members decided to vote.

“This might not be the perfect model,” member Richard Higashi said. “But I think it’s the beginning. . . . I think it has tremendous potential of doing well for our community.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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