Where I Live: Homeless in Kaka‘ako

Jun 14, 2019

"Not Homeless--a village without a place," is how Pu'uhonua o Waianae, the homeless settlement at Wai'anae Boat Harbor, characterizes itself. As officials struggle with homeless policies, a particularly Hawaiian approach, the Kauhale system, shows promise for up to 300 people on O'ahu's West Side. Kaka'ako's homeless are using this as a model.
Credit Pu'uhonua o Waianae

In January, Loretta Yajima, board chairwoman of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center warned the center may be forced to close due to drugs, filth and violence nearby in Kaka‘ako Makai. Sweeps of the homeless continue, but she says conditions have improved and the center will hold its popular Keiki Swap Meet Saturday, June 15, in the park.  

Teams from Ka Po'e o Kaka'ako and Hui Aloha meet at 10am every Saturday in the Ma uka park along Ala Moana Boulevard. Last Saturday, they picked up debris left by Wednesday's sweeps, and cleaned the area near the Children's Discovery Center.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

It was quiet as an urban park can be last Saturday when volunteers gathered under a banyan at Kaka‘ako Makai park for a weekly clean up.

Last December, the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center celebrated its 20th anniversary. Loretta Yajima says at that point, conditions with homeless dwellings around the Center had reached a crisis point.  Then something happened.

“There was a group of those in the encampments who said, 'We’d really like to help you by doing some clean up in the area.' They were very sincere and apologetic, too, about the trash and litter and graffiti and in the area.”

Aura Reyes, homeless until recently, is a certified nurse’s aide.

”Our intentions were never to do anything that hindered the kids. I would get so mad if I was down here and people were swearing, I’d say take that somewhere else,” said Reyes.

Reyes is a member of Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako (the People of Kaka‘ako), a hui of the homeless who have stepped forward this year, attending neighborhood board meetings, and reaching out to officials and nearby businesses.

Information on scheduled enforcement actions are posted the day before on the City and County of Honolulu website. There is a notice of enforcement action scheduled for today, June 14, 2019, in HPD's Waikiki District 6, which includes Kalakaua through Thomas Square and Kaka'ako Ma kai.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

"Ever since then, they have been cleaning up the area, not just around the center but throughout the park area,” Yajima said.

“That‘s been my experience, I can’t make gross generalizations, but the people I have met have been really wonderful and responsive.”

Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako is creating  community among the homeless—who then choose to live in association, much like the traditional Hawaiian kauhale system.  That involved a homestead with separate structures for eating, cooking, sleeping, etc.  It’s the kind of organization that arose at the Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae homeless encampment, where up to 300 pepople are involved.  Two anonymous private donors have offered $300 thousand dollars to their goal of acquiring a land base and establishing basic facilities, if the camp can match those funds.  Crowdsourcing is underway, find out about that here.  Pu'uhonua o Wai'anae leaders are now researching locations for a kauhale-style village on the westside.

Back in Kaka‘ako, Reyes says Ka Po’e activity got off the ground after some community members began coming around and talking to folks in the area.

“Alani, James, Cathy, they came to Mother Waldron last year, beginning of last year.  They had the "talk story,” they would come, whoever was out there, they wanted to talk story, find out why were people not leaving.”

John Mantanona, one of the principals in Ka Po'e o Kaka'ako, worked as a line cook at Nick's Fishmarket until it closed, then at Michel's before losing first his job, when they downsized, then his housing.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

‘Alani Apio, James Koshiba, and Cathy Kawano-Ching are with a community group called Hui Aloha, which has been acting as a liaison between O‘ahu homeless communities.

In Kaka‘ako, the talk stories created bonds that the homeless say could be the basis for a kauhale-style living alternative in the future, if the community can stay together.  Recent sweeps have scattered individuals ma uka across Ala Moana, and ‘Ewa toward UH JABSOM.

For now, Yajima says, the cleanups have improved conditions for the Children’s Discovery Center.

“We hope they have found an area they can build their community around. That’s what we’re hoping for.”