We were talking about public housing options when it started to drizzle. Raindrops tapped on the sunbaked blue tarp that half-covered our heads and evaporated quickly from the hot ground. As the sprinkle turned to a shower, I looked up and angled my head for shelter.
“Come,” Aunty Penny motioned to me with her hand, inviting me out of the rain, deeper into the home she shares with her ʻohana.
“Aunty Penny” Victorino’s home is the first you’ll see on Amala Place, the road to Kanaha Beach Park which is lined with cars and makeshift homes for the population of approximately 75 homeless. Not a “house” by society’s standards, Penny’s home is a small camp on the side of the road, pressed between the shoulder and the brush, and smelling of chemicals and sewage from the adjacent wastewater treatment plant. There’s no plumbing, electricity, walls, or doors. There are two cars, a kiawe tree that gives dappled shade, wood pallets used for purposes ranging from counters to raw material, and two 5×5 tarps rigged to make a roof. An old rug and a piece of plywood cover the dusty ground and on them, for furniture, the family sits on old beach chairs, a bench made from a board laid on cinder blocks, a wheelchair, and two stacked inflatable inner tubes.
But still, itʻs Home. Itʻs where Penny, 56, and her family of five cook, eat, rest, and share fellowship. Where her husband, a double amputee, cracks jokes from the passenger seat of the car while she flits between domestic tasks. Their hospitality makes it clear itʻs their space, modest but maintained and shared with pride. At one point during my visit, Iʻm offered a bottle of water.
“It’s warm from sitting in my truck,” Pennyʻs friend Doreen says apologetically, “but it’s not open.”
Thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic, I decline the offer with some guilt, as if I’d just rejected a gift.
It’s the same feeling of caution mixed with humility I feel when Aunty Penny invites me in out of the rain. The humility for being welcomed to share with someone who has little; caution because in such a tight space with inherent sanitation challenges, I don’t want to be a vector for disease spread to my family or theirs, or our shared island community.
The health and sanitary conditions of the “Kanaha ʻOhana,” as Aunty Penny refers to the community lining the half-mile strip from Aloha Recycling to the closed Kanaha Beach Park gate, have taken on a new urgency since COVID-19 became a public health emergency. These conditions and homelessness in Hawaiʻi have been a “persistent and vexing problem,” as the 2019 Hawaiʻi Housing and Planning Study put it, resulting from a continual “lack of affordable housing.” It has been a problem easily – or conveniently – ignored and forgotten.
Hawaiʻi’s unlivable minimum wage and skyrocketing home prices that have outpaced increases to median household incomes, its voracious appetite for visitors, who came last year in record numbers, and the marketed image of a tourist-haven Pacific paradise have all contributed to the reality that in Maui County last year there were an estimated 862 homeless on any given night. It’s a number only 11 less than the year before, and that’s not counting the 24 percent of households that are considered “at risk of homelessness,” and another 22 percent that are considered as having “some hidden homeless” – individuals who have doubled up into full households.
But now, as a pandemic ravages communities around the world and threatens the capacity of our own health system, the needs of this community have been amplified. As the Kanaha ʻOhana’s health is recognized as interconnected to the rest of the island and thus a risk for spreading COVID-19, new concerns about the hygiene of the homeless have arisen.
A homeless sweep at the beach park in February exemplifies the county’s outreach and degree of consideration for the homeless (or lack thereof) before coronavirus measures reached their current fevered pitch. On February 18, the county announced that the Department of Parks and Recreation would close Kanaha Beach Park for three days for “maintenance and repairs, for the removal of large debris, and deep cleaning of restrooms, grills, and showers.” The next morning, after ignoring a request from MauiTime asking if homeless people would be removed or relocated during the closure, county spokesperson Brian Perry issued a press release. It added that “illegal encampments” would be addressed as part of the closure in partnership with the police, in accordance with a county “Compassionate Action Plan.”
Details of that plan were not forthcoming. Requests to the county for a copy went unanswered. “There is no MPD policy directly dealing with homeless/houseless that you are requesting,” responded Maui Police Department public information officer Lt. Audra Sellers. One month after the sweep – and only after a Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) request was filed – county homelessness coordinator David Nakama finally furnished a one-page Compassionate Action Plan that outlined the steps, agencies, and goals involved in removing homeless encampments. Additional, specific information requested on the kinds of services offered, property seized, vehicles towed, or population removed during the February sweep was never provided.
Such sweeps are now ill-advised. “Do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19,” warns the Centers for Disease Control. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The county’s closure of parks on March 20 and beach parks on March 25 as part of social distancing measures has been another policy at odds with best health practices for areas with homelessness. With public bathrooms and showers closed, many homeless were left without a place to wash their hands, shower, or practice basic hygiene, another concern of the CDC, which advises “If toilets or handwashing facilities are not available nearby, provide access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people.”
Lisa Darcy stands at a roadside fire hydrant, pointing to the latest shower solution offered by the county: a hose and PVC pipe from the hydrant attached to a fence, and a tin holding a communal bar of Irish Spring soap. Darcy is the founder of Share Your Mana, an organization intended to “create a dignified, compassionate process for those who have become marginalized from their communities to rejoin.”
Darcy tells me that since the closure of the parks, she’s started visiting the Kanaha ʻOhana daily to do wellness checks, deliver food, and talk to the community about its needs. The shower, hand-washing stations, and portable toilets outside the park’s closed gates were installed a week after the park closure, she explains, leaving the community without any running water for days.
“This is a crisis. There are kids down here. There are kupuna down here,” says Darcy.
Watching Darcy, a slight 53-year-old woman, stroll confidently from one end of the strip to the other, it’s evident that she has the community’s trust and respect. In minutes, her 50 sandwiches are accepted by people who greet her by name along the way, give thanks for the food, and update her on their situation.
Itʻs a level of trust that will be necessary for the county to build if it hopes to be successful in helping this community and lowering the risk of COVID-19 infection.
When we reach the end of the road at the closed park entrance, I ask Alika Pua Maalea, a 26-year-old kanaka who’s lived at Kanaha for three years, if he feels the county has been helping him during the pandemic.
“Not really,” he answers. A lot of outreach has stopped since the pandemic, he says, making things even harder. After long days working construction or landscaping jobs he’d come back home to Kanaha, desperate to shower but unable to find running water.
He thanked “Aunty Lisa” for the recent changes.
“She started helping us, pushing the county to actually get portables down here and what not,” he says. “We’re really thankful for her because if it wasn’t for her, they wouldn’t have had that conversation.”
While COVID-19 has caused significant disruption, he, like Darcy and Aunty Penny, hopes that the conversation signals the possibility of more such discussions, so he can one day find that kind of home that would allow him to have his kids back in a safe place.
“Someone’s gotta say something,” Pua Maalea observes. “If not, we’re voiceless.”
Back under the tarp at Hale Aloha Kekahi i Kekahi (“love one another,” as Aunty Penny’s ʻohana proudly named their camp), his sentiment is echoed and backed by a growing effort to organize the community to advocate for itself. Resting a leg with an infected wound on a stool while the rain falls, Penny takes notes during the meeting with Darcy. She shows off her hand-drawn map and census of the different families living at Kanaha, plans a future community meeting of the entire Kanaha ʻOhana, and shares her hopes for the future (a place she can have a garden and live off the land, she says, which she would share with the youngest stuck in the cycle of homelessness).
Like others at Kanaha she is both distrustful of the county and the limited choices of the endless bureaucratic tangle, but grateful for the assistance it has provided so far. Having recently been unsuccessful in the latest round of the Section 8 rental assistance lottery, she hopes that new programs for housing will soon be available for families like hers, such as container homes, tiny homes, and community centers.
“It’s been enough already,” she says tiredly yet with determination. After years of homelessness, it seems the recent events have given her new resolve.
“If we’re willing to work together, we’ll have more chances,” she says. “We don’t have any power here. We’re trying to earn it back.”