In a very small and low-key ceremony Thursday, Hawaii County blessed the site of the future KukuiOla, a homeless village to be located at the corner of Kealakehe Parkway and Ane Keohokalole Highway in Kailua-Kona.
“It was a good feeling because this was the culmination of almost three and a half years of work to get here,” Mayor Harry Kim said of the groundbreaking.
Kim said it took time but everything started falling into place.
“This will be a total program including 24-hour staffing, an intake center, short term rentals, part of a total program, not just a place to stay,” said Kim. “The goal is eventually to have them independent.”
Funding for the project comes via the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation (HHFDC) and Ohana Zones initiative, which was allocated by the state Legislature in 2018 for around $30 million to fund at least three projects on Oahu and one project per neighbor island to help the state gain momentum in its struggle with homelessness.
KukuiOla was the first project approved under the state’s Ohana Zone.
In 2015, community activist and dentist Cliff Kopp envisioned the homeless shelter, even providing plans and collaborating with Kumu Keala Ching to come up with the name KukuiOla. Kopp spread his message via five walking trips around the island before his death in 2016.
“Many of us walked with Cliff as he walked around the island,” said deputy managing director Barbara Kossow. “He never stopped his mission. He was especially concerned for the women and the children and veterans who were homeless. He was an exceptional person. I don’t think I will ever find another one like him.”
According to Ching, kukui means enlightenment or the light found deep within, and ola means life or live.
“Much like the bowl of light, we were all born with a bowl of perfect light and our life choices has diminished our light. So our life choice can be recovered to allow our light to shine once again. KukuiOla is a place for people to rediscover their eternal light and shine on forever,” Ching said.
Kim said his thoughts as he turned the dirt with the o’o was “this one’s for you, Cliff.”
The county’s plan for KukuiOla was developed after Kim ordered police to evict dozens of homeless illegally residing at Old Kona Airport Park in May 2017. Initial plans called for permanent housing for at least 100 of West Hawaii’s homeless residents.
A final environmental assessment with a finding the KukuiOla and Village 9 Affordable Rental Community project would have no significant impact was published in November, allowing the project to move forward.
“The County is pleased that we are moving forward with the development of KukuiOla. A space that will provide for the delivery of services to our unsheltered community members,” said Sharon Hirota, Kim’s executive assistant in charge of homelessness issues. “The Assessment Center will provide a space for individuals to work with a case manager in connecting to appropriate community resources, including appropriate long-term housing opportunities.”
Construction of the KukuiOla emergency shelter would be followed by the project’s permanent supportive housing element and the affordable rental housing project to come later down the line, resources permitting.
The first phase of the KukuiOla project is located on approximately 19.1 acres. Contractor Phil Tinguely estimates it will take about eight months to complete. It will include the completion of an access road in to the property, the assessment center, community/kitchen area, a manager’s office space, 16 emergency shelter units and parking.
Hirota estimates the units will be between 120 square feet and 144 square feet.
The HHFDC will develop 13.2 acres on the parcel’s mauka portion for affordable rental housing. Work on that affordable housing is expected to start in 2025 depending on infrastructure availability, the final EA stated.
The full project site consists of a little less than 36 acres in the vicinity of the West Hawaii Civic Center and Kealakehe High School.
“I think the people of Kona will be proud of this program, because it’s not just to house and hide them,” Kim said.