Eyesore or indication of systemic societal problems?
For the past six years, Donnel Pua and her family have lived in their cars on the narrow, acrid stretch of road in front of the Kahului Wastewater Treatment plant. Pua, 48, her husband Kiki, 46, and their 17-year-old son each live in separate cars. Across the road from Pua’s black SUV, their daughter and her partner live in a tent where the family spends time together.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to be in our shoes,” Pua said of her family’s life on the Kanaha strip. “It’s not easy, especially during storms with the rain and wind and the dust. I went blind while living down here.”
Lisa Darcy, an advocate for Kahului’s homeless population who has been working with Kanaha residents for three years, estimated that there are around 50 people sleeping in their vehicles and tents on Amala Place most nights.
Last year, Pua got a piece of debris in her right eye that scratched the surface of her cornea, spurring an infection. With inactive insurance and no funds to pay for treatment, her visit to the doctor was futile. Darcy said that Pua’s possibly preventable blindness is not an isolated incident. “When people in this situation are faced with something like this and they don’t have an advocate, the consequences are serious,” she said.
Unhoused people are more likely to forgo preventative medical care but more likely to need expensive emergency care. Nationally, housing a homeless individual reduces their Medicaid costs by up to 73%. Hawaiʻi Lieutenant Governor Josh Greene, a medical doctor, estimated that housing Hawaiʻi’s long-term homeless population would save the state $300 million per year in Medicaid expenditures.
At any given time, there are approximately 800 people sleeping on the streets in Maui County, according to 2020 survey data, indicating that there are approximately 46 homeless people per 10,000 residents, far beyond the national average of 17 per 10,000.
Statewide, 33% of Hawaiʻi’s homeless population reported their race as “native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander”, while this same demographic accounts for only 10% of the population according to 2019 census data.
National data, which does not separate native Hawaiians from other Pacific Islanders, magnifies the proliferation of homelessness among Pacific Islanders in the US, with 160 homeless Pacific Islanders per 10,000 residents according to The National Alliance to end homelessness.
A 2019 county housing study found that nearly a quarter of Maui households were “at risk of homelessness,” and more than a fifth reported some “hidden homelessness,” including living with relatives by necessity.
Life expectancy in Hawaiʻi is 81 years; For the homeless population, it is only 53. Factors like stress, hygiene, drug abuse, exposure to elements and lack of access to routine medical care have an outsized effect on the unhoused. Maude Cummings, director of outreach nonprofit Family Life Center, stressed that homeless adults have to consent to help and be an active participant in the transition in order to be housed.
Cummings said that many individuals “choose to remain on the streets until their health deteriorates to the point where they can no longer walk or get water. A lot of people die soon after we house them. I have urged people, ‘Don’t wait until you are ready to die until you ask for help.’”
Before moving into their cars, Pua and her family lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Koi Ula lane in Kahului, down the street from Maui Rents, where she and her husband worked. “We had good jobs,” she said, “but then new management came in and all of us old-timers got pushed out.” Unable to find work that was sufficient to pay their $3,200 mortgage, “within a year we were homeless,” Pua said. That year, Pua’s “mental issues started,” she said. She added that her son’s mental health has more recently declined while living on the Kanaha strip.
Pua said that despite her urging otherwise, her son assured her he “would never leave” her and his father, that the three of them will be housed or none of them will be housed. Darcy and Cummings said that separation from family members and pets, inimitable sources of emotional support, often dissuades some of the community’s most fragile individuals from accepting support and retaining housing.
Sixty-four-year-old Sonia Davis, who has been living on the Kanaha roadside for five years, said she hopes to find a place to live that will allow her dogs before she relapses. Davis returned from a rehabilitation program a week earlier, and is now watching her niece’s car and belongings while her niece is in rehab, she said.
Davis, who is also in remission from breast cancer, said that she has been “doing good so far,” since rehab, “but it’s just a struggle living down here. It’s an everyday thing just surviving.”
To many who don’t live there, Kanaha’s homeless population is no more than an eyesore. Sergeant James Terry said MPD receives frequent calls and emails about the “unsightliness and hygiene risk” of the Kanaha camp.
In June the MPD dispatch received 15 calls from Maui residents. Terry said MPD stopped sweeping the area when the shelter-in-place order was issued at the start of the pandemic, though 110 abandoned vehicles were removed from May through July.
In June, MPD teamed up with Darcy and residents of Kanaha for the first time to differentiate abandoned cars from those being used for habitation so that people’s last-resort homes, containing whatever belongings they have left, would not be marked for removal.
On Sept. 1, the County of Maui announced “plans for a comprehensive clean-up of public lands” surrounding the wastewater treatment plant. The County said that social workers and service providers like Family Life Center were working to place 53 individuals in temporary shelters.
“Where will we go” was first on the agenda at the regular Friday Kanaha Ohana meeting, which Darcy attends. Residents said they were concerned that they would simply be forced out of Kanaha without the emergency housing assured by the County.
For those living on the street, the barriers to entry for housing can seem impenetrable. Mental and physical disabilities, addiction and trauma—common afflictions among unhoused populations—make it difficult to stay ahead of the paperwork, identification, communication, and drug-free status required for placement in a home.
Twenty-five-year-old Anisha, who has been living on the Kanaha strip for six months, said that acquiring official documentation has been a major obstacle in acquiring housing and work. “I didn’t have an ID, no birth certificate or social security card,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have applied for any of it if the Salvation Army didn’t help me out and let me use their address.”
Anisha and half a dozen other Kanaha roadside residents said they spend between $10 and $70 dollars per day on basic necessities. Without electricity and refrigeration, they spend heavily on ice. Other common expenses include cold drinks to combat the heat, hygiene products, and animal feed.
Average monthly rental prices for a studio in Maui County were $1,275 in June, amounting to $42.50 per day. Maui County does not track total spending on social services for homeless individuals per day.
Two residents living in their vehicles said that before they moved to the Kanaha roadside they were given Section 8 housing vouchers but could not find a landlord who would accept their vouchers.
“I feel like there is a lot of discrimination,” 39-year-old Sunny said of her failed attempts to attain housing. Even initial offers of help from outreach workers often left her with a heightened sense of hopelessness. “I feel judged by them,” she said, “like they just look at me and think I won’t be able to pay my rent.”
Sunny, who has been homeless for two years, said she got a job through Jobline X-Press while living on Amala Place, but bouts of depression and the difficulties of transportation and cleanliness while living beside the wastewater treatment plant put an end to that. “I kinda lost hope,” she said.
Darcy said she has seen passers-by spit at the homeless on Kanaha and has heard many accounts of people dropping their trash or abandoning their vehicles along the strip.
“What people don’t understand,” said Darcy, “is that there is a difference between not wanting to be housed and giving up hope. For a lot of people down here, it’s the latter.”
Pua and Anisha said that despite years of homelessness, they are still hopeful that support from groups like Family Life Center and Darcy’s nonprofit, Share Your Mana, will come through and that they, and their dogs, will be able to move into a house in the not-so-distant future.