It is well-known in Hawaii, if not in the rest of the country, that this tropical paradise has a serious problem with homelessness. There are several reasons for it – sky-high rents, low educational outcomes for many of the native population, a relatively high birthrate, heavy drug abuse in some sections – but whatever the reason, it is there. And while the government works to do something about it in the long run, local churches can plan and implement short term solutions in a week.
The Hawaii Homeless Problem
On Oahu, the problem is in epidemic proportions. As the population increases, rents and other costs of living follow suit. There are already makeshift tent cities in Waianau, on the beaches near Rabbit Island, in several public beaches on the North Shore, and a very large one on the leeward side south of the Pearl Harbor area. The tents that used to be in Waikiki have been evicted, but the homeless still roam the streets near the beaches, mingling with tourists and kama’aina.
This is unsurprising in a resort destination that has average rents for a modest 1-bedroom apartment set at about $1200, where a gallon of milk costs more than $5, and a gallon of gas more than $3. Because land here is so expensive, Hawaii maintains less than a 7-day supply of most perishable foods – and 90% of all food is imported.
The jobless rate is relatively low, at about 1.7%, but unskilled workers, drug addicts, and those with a poor work history are unlikely to find decent employment; add to that the high cost of child care and the difficulty of transportation. Though Oahu is small and bus transportation is widespread, the heavy traffic makes it difficult to get to some of the prime job spots in Honolulu. From Pearl Harbor, less than 12 miles from the heart of the city, it can take as much as an hour to get to the employee-starved Waikiki hotel strip.
For the sake of everyone, it is critical that homelessness in Hawaii be addressed. A disturbingly large proportion of those living on the streets are Hawaiian natives or people with a large percentage of Hawaiian ancestry. This adds to Hawaii’s already growing racial tensions. In addition, many of the homeless on Oahu are methamphetamine addicts and/or criminals; the high rate of crime here (though it’s not publicized, understandably) tends to rise as the number of homeless rises.
To regain the Aloha spirit, Hawaii needs to get its homeless problem under control.
Are Yurts The Answer To Homelessness?
One church in Hau’ula, on the windward side of Oahu, thinks that building yurts might be the answer to homelessness. Yurts are a strange compromise between tents and small houses. Though on the outside they resemble a circus tent (round with a cone-shaped roof), they have sturdy walls and a lockable door. They bridge the difference between permanent and portable (it can take a couple of days to move one) and in the tradewinds-blessed Hawaii, they can be surprisingly comfortable to live in.
The Ohana (Family) of the Living God Church, a tiny institution with a hundred active members, recently landed a $600K grant to erect these yurts, enabling them to provide housing, service offices, and food tents to new homeless clients. They plan to partner with other agencies, churches, and schools to locate and serve these individuals, with the goal being to get them out of the yurts and into permanent housing within forty days.
On the mainland, it is likely that such a small organization would never have been entrusted with a large project like this one. But in Hawaii, the community is smaller, and many of the church members have been in close contact with the homeless they plan to serve. The fact that homelessness is an endemic and growing problem in the high-rent island of Oahu makes the state government willing to try Ohana’s plans, as well as those of a dozen other groups who have received grants to address homelessness with innovative and unique new ideas.
The Ohana plan has many hurdles to pass before it is shown to work – finding places for yurts to be erected, dealing with crime and drug problems in the yurt encampments, and ultimately showing the success of their program with employed, housed, and happy ex-homeless clients. The few clients who have already passed through the yurt doors have high praise for the program thus far.