‘Hale’ of an Idea from Hawaii Dem: Build Grass Huts for Homeless

A Democrat believes she has, if not the best answer, at least a thought that should be considered as a solution to housing thousands of Hawaii’s homeless. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland wants state officials to build hundreds of traditional grass huts for those without a permanent address.

Proponents said the huts would work much better for large Hawaiian families than the shelters that are now available.

But some critics of Chun Oakland’s proposal wonder if the structures would even have toilets. Others complained the huts would be terrible fire and safety hazards.

Sen. Chun Oakland couldn’t answer the toilet question as she announced plans to introduce legislation to set aside land on which Native Hawaiian thatched homes, known as “hale” to Islanders and not “grass huts” as those on the Mainland would call the structures, would be erected.

But she promised to formally offer the idea when the Hawaii Legislature convenes Wednesday.

At the very least, Chun Oakland told members of the legislature’s Housing and Homeless Task Force at a meeting Jan. 11, “there is an interest in recapturing some of the traditional ways of living among our people here in Hawaii.”

More than 7,200 people are homeless in Hawaii, the highest per-capita rate of any state in America. Gov. David Y. Ige (D) declared a state of emergency in October 2015 to free up additional resources to deal with what he called a verifiable crisis.

Gov. Ige signed a second, supplemental proclamation in December to extend that state of emergency for another 60 days. He said the extension would allow his administration to continue coordinating efforts to provide emergency shelter, long-term housing and other services to those without homes.

“We are continuing to work closely with the counties to focus on specific services that we know will move people toward permanent housing,” said Gov. Ige. “The programs supported by this action are needed to ensure that our community members who are without homes can get the help they need.”

Gov. Ige’s Communications Director Cindy McMillan declined to comment on the hale or grass hut idea. She explained Ige never offers opinions on proposed legislation, at least not publicly.

So, Chun Oakland’s proposal to build grass huts for the homeless is not yet officially on Gov. Ige’s agenda to solve the homeless problem in Hawaii. But several other proposals were studied in the final months of 2015.

The idea closest to becoming reality is the conversion of a 5,000-square-foot maintenance building on the University of Hawaii Medical School campus into a temporary homeless shelter. It is near the site of what was Honolulu’s largest homeless encampment, which city police cleared out in September.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, said as many as 60 people, or 15 families, could start living in the now-vacant shed in February.

But he also said the idea is to keep the site as “temporary” as possible.

“We wanted to address the immediate need for homeless families in our current system,” Morishige said in a statement, “but we really want to keep the focus on the longer-term and try to move people quickly out of homelessness and into permanent housing.”

Honolulu officials said in December they planned to open three “affordable” housing projects for people without any place to call home in 2016. While pointing proudly to that announcement, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell was forced to admit at a press conference the city had moved too slowly on some other projects, and as a result $400,000 in funding evaporated.

While Honolulu straightens out its approach to building new homeless shelters — and isn’t, coincidentally, grappling with the ACLU, which is trying protect people living in tent villages from having what few possessions they own swept away in police roundups — Sen. Chun Oakland and Rep. Mark Hashem plan to introduce their grass hut or “Hale Housing” proposal when the Hawaii Legislature opens for business.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural practitioner, told the Housing and Homeless Task Force Chun Oakland’s idea made sense because of the large, extended families on Hawaii.

Wong-Kalu complained that most homeless shelters are built either for people who are single, or couples with at most one child.

Still, Hawaiian culture and heritage aside, not everyone on the islands thinks this is a great idea.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” said Shannon Wood, co-founder of the Windward Ahupuaa Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smart growth solutions. “This is 2016, not 1616.”