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Long-term solutions for homeless encampments hard to come by

County says more cleanups like the one at Amala Place may follow

Mattresses, pillows and other belongings line Amala Place last month before Maui County cleaned the area. Dozens of people had been living along the Kahului street near Kanaha Beach Park. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Every so often, a homeless encampment at a public beach or road grows to the point that it catches the county’s attention.

In 2017, the county pushed an estimated 100 people out of an encampment at Baldwin Beach Park in Paia.

Last month, officials cleared out dozens of people and abandoned vehicles from Amala Place in Kahului.

But while the temporary cleanups may clear access to a road or restore a beach to the way it once was, it’s only a matter of time before houseless residents are forced to set up camp somewhere else, and for the county, long-term solutions remain elusive.

“Our system is inadequate, underfunded and bogged down with paperwork,” said Maui County Council Member Gabe Johnson, chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee. “There is such a narrow path for our houseless folks to get services and shelter that many give up. There are also many root causes to homelessness such as trauma, childhood abuse, behavioral health, substance abuse, lack of support after incarceration and a system that continues the trauma which in my opinion does not help the situation, it only pours gasoline on the fire.”

Last month, Maui County officials, police and other agencies assisted with the clean up of Amala Place in Kahului. It had become a place for the homeless and unsafe conditions. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Johnson pointed to the high cost of living, lack of housing options and a system “that inadequately supports those that need help the most” as major components that need to be addressed.

Adding to the list, Lori Tsuhako, director of the county Department of Housing and Human Concerns, said that some of the unsheltered are employed, but their income is insufficient to afford rent.

“Some have been chronically unemployed and are unable to find jobs. Others are estranged due to divorce or family disputes and have nowhere to live,” Tsuhako said. “Others have homes available to them, but choose to live freely, without rules and boundaries, contending they have a right to live where, and how, they want.”

There’s no doubt that solutions to address the multifaceted issues surrounding homelessness are not easy to formulate and implement.

Still, efforts to develop affordable rentals for very low-income households — 30 percent and below of the area median income — remain a priority for the county, Tsuhako said earlier this month.

“The only solution to homelessness is to get people into housing, but the availability and price of housing continues to be an obstacle in Hawaii in addition to several Mainland states with high living costs,” she said.

One example of getting individuals into homes includes how the administration worked with the state to refurbish the former University of Hawaii Maui College dorms as affordable rentals for 12 formerly homeless families “to provide a secure and nurturing place, near services, to strengthen their self-sufficiency,” she said.

County affordable housing funds have been leveraged with federal tax credits and federal Housing and Urban Development funds to build more affordable rental units for low-income families too.

Permanent supportive housing through HUD funds are another resource used to house the “chronically homeless,” she added. These funds are not administered by the county, but are used by social service agencies to house those who need it most.

Johnson said that the County Council also funded the Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan where many “next steps” toward achieving affordable housing solutions are outlined. Maui County needs more shelter options because “one size does not fit all,” he said.

“I have pulled several top priorities out of the plan that we can focus on immediately and am introducing and creating policy to address the systematic failures that have led us to where we are today,” he said. “For example, I created a policy to secure a county-run affordable housing list that will give preference to long-time residents and prevent mortgage steering by developers. I also created bills recognizing that shelter and housing is a human right and am working on legislation to address AMI (area median income) levels that claim houses costing between $600 (to) $800 is considered affordable.

“Again, we have a system failing our many hard-working folks.”

Managed camps,tiny homes

Some residents who were critical of the cleanup on Amala Place in September expressed support for a managed camp, a place where people who couldn’t afford housing could go to sleep safely, store their belongings and get access to services — a concept that many communities around the country have mulled.

Johnson said he’s a proponent of managed encampments for the unsheltered as a possible way to mitigate future illegal encampments, like the one that grew on Amala Place, citing how Oahu has had “some success” with creating low-barrier shelters that have wraparound services that keep the homeless safe while providing them with what they need, such as wound care, meals and other social services.

However, Tsuhako said that managed encampments are “much more complex than it appears” and the county would be unable to operate one.

No government agency, nonprofit or private company has come forward to establish, fund or operate such a program, she added.

“Most advocates don’t understand the entirety of what is involved. Assuming ordinances could be enacted for a managed homeless encampment, where would it be located and who would manage it?” she said. “And what happens when campers refuse to follow the encampment’s rules?”

Just down the street from where the intervention and cleanup took place on Amala sits a company that builds tiny homes, a concept and living style that has grown in popularity due to their wide availability and relatively lower costs.

It could also be a way to combat the housing crisis by making eco-friendly expandable container houses that are easily transportable and can be both temporary or permanent living spaces.

“My goal is to do this for the Hawaiian Islands and hopefully it catches on, and obviously it has,” said Joey MacDonald, founder and senior developer of Maui-based company Aloha Tiny Hales. “It’s actually what people need here and it’s actually something people can own and re-sell.”

Aloha Tiny Hales allows owners the option of using solar and wind power generation, a personal wastewater treatment system and water tank to live off grid.

“In Hawaii, the infrastructure is the most expensive part of anything,” he said.

He has designs ready to be sent to engineers for building 400-square-foot galvanized steel homes priced at $48,000 — the price varies depending on the shipping costs of materials. The company can also build 600- and 800-square-foot homes.

Each unit has space for a bathroom with shower, toilet, kitchen and a washer/dryer. It takes 90 days to build, averaging about 25 houses a year.

With his designs for the tiny expandable units, MacDonald said he would be able to build about 1,000 a year through factory manufacturing. He has one practice model that has been running for three months, and everything is “going well.”

He hopes to propose his plans to the county once details are finalized, he said.

The county has had numerous meetings with developers with proposed projects made up of tiny homes, Tsuhako said, adding that the department has no objections to the proposals, but noted that such developments require the same approvals as traditional housing developments, including the provision of necessary infrastructure.

Although proper permitting is required, the model of a tiny home in general is nothing new for the island of Lanai, where there are 500-square-foot units designed as a duplex built back in the 1930s.

“It fits our island culture,” said Johnson, who holds the Lanai residency seat on the council. “The problem is now that the same home is valued at $500,000 and up. Tiny home developments also have a unique way to receive funding through the county’s demonstration and experimental housing grant.”

In the meantime, similar cleanups to the one that happened at Amala, which Tsuhako said was planned months in advance as a way to resolve “serious health and safety hazards for area occupants, residents and businesses,” may continue to occur. The efforts came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and other advocates who said the homeless residents living on Amala had few safe, lawful places to go.

Although these initiatives are not necessarily long-term solutions, it was “impetus for most to accept shelter services,” Tsuhako added.

As a result, 40 were placed into shelters, one went into permanent housing and six moved in with family and friends.

“This means 47 individuals now have access to clean toilets, hot showers, comfortable beds, nourishing food and case management,” she said. “Most of these individuals had been offered shelter and services for several months but declined until they understood the intervention was going to happen.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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