The homeless: Shelter from the storm

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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on the homeless population in North Hawaii, with possible solutions from local nonprofits, churches and community groups for how to tackle the problem.

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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on the homeless population in North Hawaii, with possible solutions from local nonprofits, churches and community groups for how to tackle the problem.

NORTH HAWAII — Albert, a Spencer Beach Park homeless man, moved through a thicket of kiawe branches from his Spencer camp last week for his Thursday evening dinner. It was delivered by eighth-grader Neighton Bell, who with his mother, Rhonda, has brought 30 hot meals down to the homeless of Puako, Spencer Beach Park and Kawaihae every week for five years.

That night, Albert and his wife had meatloaf, glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, fresh Waimea greens salads, apple bananas and a small bag of cookies — a fresh-from-scratch community meal prepared and served at St James Episcopal Church’s Pavilion in Waimea weekly.

Neighton knew the way through the prickly brush to this camp because Albert has been here for 10 years.

This was the last stop for Rhonda. After loading up her pickup from the community dinner, she drove down Kawaihae Road and met most of her regulars. Some were missing at the Spencer stop though — the parking lots were unusually full.

As founder of The Big Island Giving Tree, Rhonda speculated that her usuals — eight people — had been chased off. Tenacious and driven, she ticked off their names under her breath, worried. Here and there she or Neighton spotted an old face, or a new face and so another homeless person became connected with the web of North Hawaii volunteers spreading the gift of the golden rule.

Hawaii Island’s nonprofits, churches and community groups are keenly aware that the homeless families, elderly kupuna and the sick need more than food. But they also believe that even those content with their hobo lives deserve a tomorrow, and the chance to make better decisions.

Nights for these off-grid families on the beach means coolers of melting ice, dying cellphones and for the children, a fading yellow bath of flashlight for homework. In some cases, one parent works at a resort, while the other drives the kids to school, to sports and other afternoon activities, and then back to the beach.

They cannot save enough for a rental security deposit, never mind a down payment for the most Spartan house on this side of the island. Some actually have homes on the other side, but they can’t afford to live in them because the jobs are here. They sleep in cars and under the bright Kawaihae constellations.

Individuals, particularly, are at risk for misfortune. The families have a sustaining sense of coherence, but the single men, often isolated by broken relationships, suffer from more than poverty. Many are severely depressed and angry, finding relief in alcohol and methamphetamine, which further disfigure their world. Treatable illnesses run out of control. Saddest always is the loss of hope. But who can help?

In North Hawaii, faith-based outreach efforts like Bell’s and local churches bear the brunt of the responsibility. Possibly no program has grown more explosively than Waimea’s St. James community dinner, which only six months in is feeding 250 people every Thursday night.

Father David Stout and Rev. Marnia Keaton, priest associate, sat in his office Monday describing the stunning success.

“It’s entirely lay-driven,” declared Father David, drawing particular attention to the work of their co-founders Tim Bostock and Jane Sherwood. Bostock’s particular inspiration, said Father David, was the addition of live music, effectively blurring the distinction between guest and volunteer.

“This is a food ministry,” he explained, “dealing with immediate needs.”

The housing need? Not yet, said Father David. But not never.

“Think big but start small,” said Keaton.

Outside of North Hawaii, Hope Services — the county’s largest and best-funded nonprofit — has done a lot on the Big Island, in locations where the homeless are more numerous and more visible. Recently they launched a unique program there offering daily breakfasts, showers and laundry privileges at certain hours. In Kona they’ve funded another 40 emergency beds to supplement other services.

But there are no private beds in North Hawaii, despite the estimates of up to 100 homeless, many of them circulating from town to town depending on their needs. They are not interested in relocation to Kona or Hilo, where, many think, their alcohol, drugs and pets would not be welcomed.

Patricia Walter, from Hawaii Island Home for Recovery based in Hilo, said otherwise.

“We will take them in. But the bigger problem,” she added, “are the new cuts from Washington. Before, we could house someone for two years. Now it’s 90 days.”

When the St. James Pavilion returns to darkness, the fact remains that groceries and meals alone will not bring people out of their camps, their cars and under the weak evening lights of deserted Waimea business lanais. They need safe shelter.

“Three million dollars for the homeless,” said Rhonda in exasperation. “Where is it?” she asked, referring to another Kona housing project.

In Honokaa, there is a monthly food pantry, offered to anyone, and a $25 Salvation Army voucher good at the local thrift store. North Kohala is ramping up the new Little Free Pantry, an honor system with one station in Hawi and another in Kapaau that will stock basic necessities for anyone who needs them.

Beyond providing food, what can frustrated North Hawaii communities do? Unsanitary camps and hard wooden beds in town do not represent best practices, though that’s what the future holds if nothing is done.

In response, Father David leaned forward in his chair, excited.

“Meals every day,” he exclaimed, “cooked in an industrial-class kitchen; a multi-purpose space with showers, laundry units and a lanai where the kupuna can hang out with coffee and friends — a kind of day center for the elderly.”

But Bostock saw even more.

“At St. James we have long-term dreams about rebuilding the Pavilion,” he said in an email interview, “with apartments above to help homeless families, in particular, get out of their cars and off the streets. Not tomorrow — we have a long way to go in rebuilding that facility.”

Bostock and his cohorts will soon be reviewing their options, and then decide what’s best. In fact, St James Circle may not be the best place, given the proximity of two schools. They’re considering another building altogether.

Inspired by Bostock’s insuperable energy, an alliance of the willing, the drive of BIGT, the money smarts of Hope Services, the spirit of the churches and the awakened aloha of the lay communities in North Hawaii could do something remarkable.

“It can be done,” said Father David.

Between the unspoken fantasy to have the homeless become invisible, and the parallel vision in which somebody ponies up for housing is the reality of what exists today in North Hawaii: food donated by local farmers and KTA, a tradition of tolerance and an image of what’s possible if those willing team up.

As Hope Service’s Malu Debus said in an interview, “It’s a philosophic question.”

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It seems like the dugouts are full of players, but for emergency shelter in North Hawaii no one even knows where the bats are, never mind picking one up and striding to the plate. The homeless wait on base, in the dark camps and on the cold benches. They don’t expect a home run. They don’t expect anything. But perhaps they can be surprised.

“It can be done” are words worth repeating.

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