What Do the Unsheltered Need?

We quickly learned that existing shelters were viewed unfavorably by just about everyone in this population. A few share tales of being denied a bed, poor treatment by staff, and rules being unfairly applied. Granted, these aren’t the folks presently living at the shelters, and…...

We asked some of them. Here are their answers

Scott Hansen gathers a crowd wherever he goes. That’s because he brings with him a trailer containing a complete bathroom and shower at one end and a tiny laundry room at the other which he—and the Maui Rescue Mission he directs—make available to the unsheltered at various locations throughout the island. 

Hansen tows the trailer to St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Kīhei on Monday afternoons, Lāhainā Baptist Church on Wednesday mornings, and Kanaha Beach park in Kahului on Thursday mornings. Each visit is timed to coincide with free meals provided by other charities, like Hale Kau Kau or the Salvation Army. 

The people who come are generally orderly and appreciative. Bins of donated clothing are put out for them. Hansen temporarily shut down his laundry during the COVID-19 pandemic and began offering used clothes instead. Only then did he discover that nobody else was really doing that.

While they wait their turn for the shower or laundry, homeless folks—perhaps houseless is a better term, since most consider Maui “home”—receive help from volunteers to apply for food stamps or government assistance, and can even get a free haircut. 

We spoke to those living on the streets and asked them what services, like those  Hansen provides, aren’t currently available that would be useful to them. Last names were omitted. 

Even so, some think more shelters are needed, Henry included. Everybody calls him “Bulleh” and he seems content and confident, sporting a new haircut from volunteer stylist Theresa Adams. Bulleh appreciates the fellowship provided by the Rescue Mission’s weekly visit. “You meet people from all over the island, you know,” he said.

“You meet people from all over the island, you know. Everybody’s
just trying to struggle.” -Bulleh
Photo by Dan Collins

“Build more shelters,” he suggested. “Big buildings with single units. Give ‘em three months for folks to get back on their feet.” Limiting stays would motivate people to look for work, he believes, but those who don’t could be given more chances, if they reapply. “A lot of people take advantage of the system,” he said, although he’s not sure how to stop them. “They gotta go sleep with that on their mind.”

Others, like John, are fed up with shelters. “They don’t help you do anything there, I’m serious,” he said. A late-night locker search at one facility got him kicked out for possessing medication that he claims was mistaken for illegal drugs. 

Ipo says she and her two boys, age five and eight, were evicted from a Lāhainā shelter due to a conflict between neighbors on either side that eventually led her to blow up. “They scrapped like cats and dogs,” she said, explaining why she put in a request to move units. “Coming from a domestic violence background, I can’t handle this s–t. My kids are terrified, crying, wondering what’s happening next door.” In her request, she cited anxiety, depression, and PTSD as factors for requesting prompt action. Instead, her paperwork was returned. She was told to provide a doctor’s confirmation of her diagnosis for those medical conditions and resubmit her request. Before the doctor’s note arrived, she threw a fit that got her kicked out. 

“I snapped,” she admitted. “I could not handle it any more.” She’s now been disqualified for services and sleeps in a nearby park with her children. Previously, she had complained about the shelter’s hours, which prohibited her from coming home after her graveyard shift as a security guard. She also took issue with their policy of not allowing a non-resident adult to come onto the premises to take care of her kids while she’s at work. She claims she lost her job when she was forced to take the kids to work with her. 

Joe, a former firefighter, thinks the hours are a problem, too. “They need to make it 24-hour access,” he said. “If you get out of jail or discharged from the hospital, you need somewhere to sleep that night.” 

Barbara applauds the recent passage of a county ordinance that allows people to sleep in their cars overnight in designated county parking lots. Each person in a vehicle must check in upon arrival between 10-11:00 p.m. and leave between 5-6:00 a.m. No cooking is allowed. Just one catch—you must have a car. 

Shelters aside, we asked people what a homeless services center might look like, if the county were willing to invest a few million dollars in building one. Here are some of the features that they suggested.

Bathroom access is at the top of just about everybody’s list. Specifically, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms—ideally featuring the new touchless hygienic technology that most hotels and restaurants rely on to keep guests safe. Hands-free sinks and self-flushing toilets shouldn’t be just for resort patrons, Tony suggests. Barbara would like to see private family bathrooms where parents can take children of either gender to use the toilet, change diapers, and bathe. Jolene thinks donated diapers would be helpful to new parents, too. 

“That one shower is not enough for all the people who want to shower.” -Barbara
Photo by Dan Collins

Some of the women noted that 24-hour toilet access is important for women and girls while menstruating, and suggested that donated feminine hygiene products would be welcome. Women on the street sometimes resort to makeshift alternatives that can put their health at risk. 

Hot showers are another common request. They could either be on a timer system or monitored to prevent people from taking too long and wasting water.

Sabine, a former nurse, points out that weather-related health problems like heat stroke will become more common with global warming. She suggested that the county employ heat coordinators to do outreach to the houseless during heat waves, providing them with water and shade. 

While some of the homeless have clearly given up on appearances, most have a degree of pride that makes them want to look their best. Laundry facilities make that possible. While Hansen does the work of washing his clients’ clothes, most agree that they would be content running their own laundry, given laundry bags and baskets to use. 

Demand for second-hand clothes is strong, especially for women and children. For those who are seeking work, loaner outfits, hair styling, resumé consultation, and coaching for job interviews could be life-changing. 

One of the challenges of living unsheltered is keeping track of your belongings, which are vulnerable to theft or vandalism. Many resort to shopping carts. Some keep it all in a backpack. Others stash it in a tent in the bushes. Lockers to store valuables and personal belongings—like the Lāhainā Salvation Army once offered—are something everyone could use, but concerns about being subjected to searches makes some hesitant. 

Many of Maui’s houseless have cell phones, which helps them connect with friends and family, access services, and use the internet. It’s a boon in terms of their mental health and ability to participate in society. But few of them have an outlet to plug into, so wi-fi and phone charging stations like the rescue mission provides are extremely helpful. 

What about food? Most of the houseless rely on meal service provided by local soup kitchens a few days each week. Some agreed that shared kitchen space with refrigerated food storage for meal preparation would be a huge asset, but everyone agreed that it would need to be carefully managed to avoid conflict or theft. 

Tony appreciates the groups that provide free meals, but not always the quality of what they offer. “I know beggars can’t always be choosers,” he says, “but a lot of the free food that’s given out is not up to my standards in terms of what I like to consider healthy food.” He likes the idea of a shared kitchen, but thinks that meal distribution is less likely to lead to conflict. Soup kitchens only provide meals periodically, though, and people need to eat daily.

“I’m pretty…proactive. Anything that will help
me move forward,
I’m all about it.” -Ipo
Photo by Dan Collins

Tony believes that there is plenty of food out there to expand their efforts. “A lot of food goes to waste, a lot of produce just gets dumped out,” he says, “and some of the expired foods and day-old foods are much better than what a lot of people have to eat out here.” He’d like to see more usable food diverted from the landfill. Joe would just like an evening meal, for a change. “Everybody does breakfast or lunch, but nobody does dinner,” he says of the local Lāhainā charities. 

Tony had relied on food banks on the Mainland, but he says they are practically nonexistent on Maui. “I didn’t really see one,” he says. “There was just like a one-time emergency box of food you could get from the food bank. That’s all I saw available.” The Maui Food Bank’s own website confirms this. It reads, “​​The Food Bank does not distribute food to the public at their location. However, individuals can come to the Food Bank for a one-time emergency food bag.” In fairness, they do provide food to soup kitchens and other partner organizations who serve the unsheltered. 

In order to access food stamps, disability insurance, or other government programs, it’s helpful to have an address to receive mail. The Lāhainā Salvation Army used to let people share their address for that purpose, but stopped doing so some time ago, says John, claiming that it wasn’t allowed by the post office. Lāhainā Baptist Church stepped in and now many of the homeless on the West Side receive mail there. 

Transportation is a topic that splits the group. Some have cars of their own, while others spend hours walking or hitchhiking from place to place. Mama Dee would like to see a shuttle to help folks get around. “Some people are stuck in town and they want to go out to, say, Oluwalu and no can.” Maui Economic Opportunity provides on-demand transportation for medical appointments, food stamp interviews, and the like, but not everybody can access their services. Donated or loaner bicycles could help with short trips around town. 

Sabine, the former nurse, wishes there were better medical care for the houseless islandwide, like that provided by social workers at the Pāʻia municipal parking lot on Mondays. Sores and open wounds need to be dressed and bandaged. People need basic first aid to prevent staph infection, which is both common and potentially deadly. And Sabine would like to see the county provide blood glucose testing and blood pressure monitoring, too.

“Even the cops out here treat the tourists differently than the locals. Anybody who tells you differently is flat out lying.” -John
Photo by Dan Collins

Diabetics on the street often have toes amputated due to poor circulation, bad nutrition, and the constant challenge of keeping their feet clean. “It would be good, because they can’t keep their meter handy,” said Sabine. “It gets rained on, the test strips, you know.” Orange juice or glucose pills could be kept on hand to help adjust blood sugar.

Jolene would like mental health counseling covered, too. “Some of these people have a lot of problems and they need someone to help them,” she said. “Just like these guys helping to fill out paperwork [for food stamps, gov’t assistance, and medical coverage], but for mental health.” She’s also concerned about the well-being of the children growing up on the streets. “Maybe a little kids area for them to do coloring,” she suggests. “You know, little tables with toys and games like they have in hospitals.” 

“They also need to work with the police and the hospitals and find out what happened to people,” Jolene says, “because sometimes people that we all know on the streets are gone, and we don’t know where they are.” Her friend Anita disappeared recently and there are rumors that she was in a car accident, but nobody can confirm that. “She stayed right down the street from me and every time I go by there I cry,” Jolene said. “It gives me chills.” The police handle missing persons reports, but getting information from them isn’t easy, especially if you’re not a relative of the missing person. Privacy issues come into play. And let’s be honest, most homeless folks aren’t very enthusiastic about dealing with the cops. A central bulletin board where people could post messages for one another would help. 

And that brings us back to shelter. Instead of heavily-guarded apartment blocks, like those used by current shelters, Tony envisions colonies of tiny houses “so everybody’s not cramped together.” And he’s willing to help build them, in exchange for a safe place to sleep. 

Not everyone on the street is looking for a job. But for some, a day of work would be a blessing. “I always had a vision for a place where you could go and work,” Tony said, “maybe help build more places and run the whole facility in exchange for your stay.” 


Dan Collins

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