Puuhonua O Waianae: Hawaii’s refuge for the homeless, by the homeless

When Twinkle Borge heard about the community meeting in 2010 to discuss what to do about the growing population at the homeless encampment near Waianae Boat Harbor on Oahu’s west coast, she figured the camp’s residents ought to have a voice.

Borge had been living in the camp since 2006, a few years after she became homeless. At the time there were only about seven people living there, she said. But as the homeless got swept out of camps elsewhere on the island, they trickled into the village.

The camp became known as Puuhonua O Waianae, a homage to the traditions of old Hawaii which considered a Puuhonua to be a sacred place free of punishment and judgment for natives who broke the law.

Blunt and indomitable, Borge was used to acting as camp mediator, but her leadership responsibilities escalated at the meeting when the harbormaster gave her 60 days to clean up the camp.

Over the next two months, Borge kicked out six families that were causing trouble and instituted a set of governing rules, including monthly meetings and required volunteer hours to maintain the village. Anyone who enters the camp is now sent to Borge for a screening, which she starts by asking if they’d rather live in a shelter or in the camp. She also asks each prospective resident is if they have any outstanding warrants. If they do, she contacts police and arranges for the person to see a judge.

While it was difficult to kick the six families out of the camp, Borge said it was necessary

“It’s not like I wanted to,” she said. “I had to.”

Borge and the camp’s matriarchs didn’t stop there.

Over the past six years they installed a solar-powered light that illuminates a section of pathway through the camp, and Borge said she’s seeking sponsors for more so that kids can find their way around at night.

Borge estimated that 40 of camp’s residents now have jobs, and when a storm rolls through that damages camps, everyone pitches in to help families rebuild before working on individual camps.

Borge said she’s also hoping to set up a system to get income for the rest of the community.

“I’m trying to make our community formal,” Borge said. “And not something others think we are.”

 

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Twinkle Borge (Photo Alexander Deedy)

Borge has also been experimenting with hydroponics.

She set up a  20-by-20 tent in the camps community area community area. Inside the tent, two halves of a plastic 50-gallon drum sit above a water tank and boast sprouts of taro and lettuce. When the plants are watered, excess liquid drains into a holding tank below, which holds tilapia.

None of the plants in the drums are large enough to eat yet, but on a nearby hillside one resident is growing some promising crops. The end goal, Borge said, is to get enough crops growing that they can set up a tent by the road and sell produce to those living in Waianae.

The camp’s residents also used pallets to develop infrastructure, much like in Old Puuhonua, where there were  great walls and carved wooden images.

Residents of the camp initially wanted pallets just to elevate their tents off the ground, Jerrell Tate, a pastor who regularly ministers in the camp, said. Then when a call went out that the homeless needed pallets to stay dry, local businesses answered generously. Wooden pallets became the barrier separating the camp from the beach, fences surrounding individual tents and borders for the dirt pathways that meander through the encampment.

Inside the camp, blue tarps are stretched over couches, generators can be heard humming and even sounds of TVs carry from some tents.

“When you think of a homeless camp, this isn’t what you imagine,” Tate said, gesturing around him.

Brenda Cruz, who said she has been in the camp longer than anyone, washes her clothes in an old cooler on the beach before the rain she is expecting that afternoon arrives.

Brenda Cruz, who said she has been in the camp longer than anyone, washes her clothes in an old cooler on the beach before the rain she is expecting that afternoon arrives.

Around Waianae, some people still have the perception that the homeless camp is full of drug addicts and mentally unstable, and that authorities should clear it out, said Cedric Gates, the chair of the Waianae Neighborhood Board. But plenty of other people have compassion for those in the camp, and as someone who works with the village’s leaders, Gates said he’s part of the latter group.

“I would debunk the narrative that the people — all the people — living in there are substance abusers and mentally ill,” he said. “There’s working class families in there and they are struggling because they can’t find any low-income rentals to get in.”

In Hawaii, where wages are similar to much of the contiguous United States but cost of living is considerably higher, the per capita homeless rate is the highest in the nation. Homelessness is so pervasive in the state that Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, declared last October a state of emergency to deal with the issue.

The governor’s coordinator on homelessness is Scott Morishige, a young Hawaiian who said the state’s approach in treating homeless is grounded in Ohana Nui, a Hawaiian phrase that means extended family.

Now almost a year into his position, he said the state is tackling the homeless issue through three lenses: creating permanent, affordable housing, addressing human services needs and ensuring public safety.

He noted the last point is important because homeless sometimes settle in dangerous spots, like on the side of a cliff or by a gas line. In the case of Puuhonua O Waianae, the village isn’t in a dangerous spot, but the land was intended for another use.

The 20-acre lot is under the control the state Department of Aquatic Resources because under the dirt, in ponds of mixed salt and freshwater, live a rare species of Hawaiian red shrimp found only on Oahu’s west coast. When biologists last assessed the property several years ago, Morishige said they found the human encampment had likely caused some damage to the population.

“As we face issues like homeless … how do we balance these competing mandates?” Morishige asked. “How do we balance the needs of the people who are there — not all necessarily by choice — who have now made this their home, with the need to preserve the unique wildlife for future generations?”

The starting point is through conversations with residents, which Morishige regularly has with people from the camp. Recently, he asked Borge to stop taking in any more residents.

“One of the concerns is, if the encampment continues to grow, at what point will Twinkle and her captains be able to kind of maintain order,” Morishige said.

Borge said she refused to stop taking in new people.

“Why would we want to turn anybody away without help?” she asked.

She said she loves the camp’s residents, even if some of them are hard-headed and some are addicts.

“They good people, just made wrong choices,” she said.

Borge estimated that over the last few years the camp has helped over 200 people transition into housing. Not one of them has ended up back on the street, she said.

For many others, like Borge, the camp has been their home for so long that they have no desire to enter a house.  In fact, homeless isn’t a term that Borge likes to use. Instead, they think of the camp’s residents as “houseless.”

“This is my home,” Borge said.

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