Mayor Alan Arakawa made some news this week with his announcement during his State of the County address that he wants to move Maui’s homeless population—at last count numbering 800-plus—to the Old Maui High School Hamakuapoko campus outside Paia.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to MauiTime readers. Last year, after the TEACH organization failed in its attempt to win a 60-year, $1 per year lease to take over the same campus, we quoted mayoral spokesman Rod Antone making the same suggestion (click here to read that story).
At the time it seemed a flippant and rather cruel joke. After all, the 23-acre site has no water or sewer, and the buildings there are crumbling. But as the mayor explained it in his speech, the “Project Aloha” plan will move “the homeless, former [prison] inmates and the disadvantaged” to “an area of lesser impact to the rest of the community.”
To accomplish this, the mayor wants to lease the campus to a local nonprofit group, Tri-Isle Resource Conservation & Development, and “a coalition of community partners.” MauiTime caught up with Tri-Isle executive director John Tomoso this week and found the former social worker and recently ordained Episcopal priest long on enthusiasm, but rather short on details about this massive undertaking. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
MAUITIME: The mayor’s plan is to move the island’s homeless to Old Maui High School—
JOHN TOMASO: Not all of them! I’m not going to move all of them! I mean, you’re talking about hundreds of people. We can’t move everybody up there! We can’t service all the hundreds, noooo! There’s no way!
MT: The mayor said he wants them moved to an area of “lesser impact” to the community.
JT: Well, that’s not my idea. Those are his words. But I grew up here; most of my cousins went to Maui High. It’s not that isolated. Back when I grew up, there were only 30,000 people on Maui and everybody knew where to go and nothing was isolated. But in modern time, I don’t think that kind of isolation should be any problem to any service organization because the connectivity both physically and virtually it is there. Because Maui is a small place.
MT: What is your plan?
JT: Oh my gosh, we have months of work; we’re starting from zero. Right now, at this point, I don’t have a plan on paper. We [Tri Isle] just joined the Maui Homeless Alliance because we were wanting to do something—especially with Old Maui High School.
MT: But the mayor said he wants to send a proposal to the County Council in two weeks for your organization to lease the site. When TEACH came before the council it had a 157-page proposal in hand.
JT: I don’t have a proposal, I have snippets of it–maybe 12 pages. Even a couple of napkins that I still have to transcribe [giggles]. This is a work in progress and if it’s 20 people or 200 people [living on the campus], that’s what we’re going to work towards. We’re going to give it more than our best social work-community development shot. Starting Monday, we’re going to put pen to paper. We just came up with the name “Project Aloha.” Okay, so it sounds like I’m a fly-by-night, I know. I’m going to tell the Council what I’m telling you. I mean, I can’t lie. Is there a plan? Somewhat, but not on paper. I don’t have—in the Western way—a plan.
MT: How much time will you need to develop a plan?
JT: I don’t know. That’s my stock-in-trade answer right now.
MT: How did your involvement come about?
JT: Oh, I’ve been meeting with the mayor for over a year.
MT: But you haven’t put a hard proposal in front of him?
JT: Are you going to quote me on this?
JT: Then I’m not going to answer [giggles]. I haven’t been talking to the mayor for a year; maybe we started talking last summer. I’ve had a bunch of meetings with the mayor. But I haven’t been in a meeting with him by himself; it’s been with other parties who are concerned about the underserved populations.
MT: What do you think this project will cost?
JT: Oh, I don’t know. I sound stupid, I know. I don’t know. We can’t do it without government at all levels. We need public sector money, your tax money. There has to be some public sector involvement in the funding. If you look at homeless programs throughout the country, there’s public/private partnership. It can’t be all corporate. We’re [the OMHS campus] surrounded by A&B, so A&B is the one I want to talk with, their foundation.
MT: I looked at the Tri-Isle website and although your organization has done a number of environmentally related projects, I’m trying to figure out how it has the expertise to build the infrastructure necessary to move in the homeless.
JT: We have to come up with a coalition and a partnering with many people other than ourselves. The main reason we’re interested in the campus is because of this agricultural land up there that can be used for training and mentoring. You know, there’s tons of land that can be used as a mentorship, as a training, as a rehabilitator for ‘aina kind of relationships. I don’t even know if we want to take over the high school buildings. That’s a big campus.
MT: But there’s no place for anyone to live; there’s no water or sewer.
JT: Well, then we’ll have to build units up there. That’s how big this plan is—you can’t just put people up in tents. Maybe rehabilitate a classroom to start as a dorm. We’ll use grants. We’ll need grants, lots of public and private grants. I love grantsmanship. It’s housing first, then you surround people with services and I use “surround” in quotations because I realize even to get out to Paia by bus it takes a while, but then this is beyond Paia.
MT: And Holomua Road [which leads to the campus] isn’t paved the whole way.
JT: Yes it is.
MT: No, only half the way.
JT: Well it used to be. It was beautiful.
MT: Part of the problem with TEACH’s proposal was increased traffic through Paia.
JT: I know that traffic, my grandchildren live in Haiku. When I [drive through] Paia I think “Oh my God, I’m glad I don’t live here.” We need to engage the community.
MT: If the Council doesn’t want to give you a lease, would you do Project Aloha in some other location?
JT: Oh yes, because I’m committed to it. But I see this Old Maui High campus that used to be this beautiful place [starts to cry] and now it hurts me to go in there. To misuse her is the furthest thing from my mind. It’s just going to nothing right now; it’s just sitting there.
Photo of Old Maui High: Moises de la vera/Wikimedia Commons