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State should support, not persecute, Waianae puuhonua

While state relief is slow-coming, if at all, Waiʻanae’s houseless are already addressing their community needs within an indigenous framework that values kuleana, family and working together toward a common good.

First-Hand Report
Tina Grandinetti

Cover image: At Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, the camp’s wahine have taken on a matriarchal leadership role. | Courtesy Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae

Morning on the Waiʻanae Coast. The sun beats down hard from a cloudless sky as I pull into the Waiʻanae Boat Harbor parking lot and step into a grove of kiawe trees at its edge. Here, tucked out of sight, just off Farrington Highway, lies Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae—the refuge of Waiʻanae.

Like most visitors, my first stop is Aunty Twinkle Borge’s tent. Twinkle, the “governor” of this houseless village, is at the Capitol this morning. As the camp’s de facto leader, she has become a full-fledged advocate for the houseless, liaising with government officials, the media, and nonprofits in order to keep this community together and push the State to provide adequate housing for the people of Hawaiʻi. But even in her absence, Twinkle’s home is open to everyone. All morning, her tent is filled with people, some stopping to say hello on their way to work, others bringing their young keiki to play.

Sitting under the blue glow of a tarp, atop a sagging plywood floor, I watch as people pop their heads in to say good morning, or grab a plate of food. Today, Adam is cooking up breakfast for whoever passes through.

“You want some?” Adam asks me as he heaps a pile of corned beef hash onto a mound of rice, moving around the makeshift kitchen with the kind of familiarity only found at home. The 22 year old has lived here, at Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, since he was 16.

“It’s always like this” he says as he serves up another plate. “People can come in here and eat or whatever, we don’t turn anyone away.”

Though houseless people have lived here at the Waiʻanae Boat Harbor since the 1980s, the current incarnation of this encampment began back in 2012 when Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration bulldozed a large encampment at Keaʻau Beach Park. Displaced people flooded into the Waiʻanae Boat Harbor, and community complaints led to the threat of eviction. That’s when Borge made a deal with William Aila, who was the Waiʻanae harbor master at the time. She would get the encampment in shape if she and the other residents could stay.

Since then, the harbor has evolved into a unique community—one that is intentionally self-governing, largely matriarchal and decisively rooted in Hawaiian values. Not the sanitized and commodified version of “aloha” sold to tourists from the U.S. mainland, but a real, working aloha, rooted in extended family, communal living and kuleana.

Today, the camp population fluctuates from about 170 to 300 people. A trip down the winding dirt path that runs through the encampment will lead you past a small dryland loʻi patch, a vegetable garden, a community center, and a homework tent for the kids. One resident just graduated summa cum laude from Waiʻanae High School. Nearly all of the residents of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae are locals; many are Pacific Islander, and a majority are Native Hawaiian.

Residents of the puʻuhonua must attend monthly village meetings, and commit to 8 hours of community work a month—cleaning up the village, working in the donation tent, or helping to tend to the community gardens. Local non-profits assist with trash removal and sanitation needs.

As far as governance goes, the camp is divided into ten sections, and each section is designated a captain. Block captains make sure their areas are clean, help to contain and settle disputes, and communicate camp news to the people in their section. But beyond their daily supervisory role, their real responsibility is caring for the other residents. Block captains are often picked from the older women in the camp, the “mamas.”

Moki Hokoana, the camp overseer, says, “We tough for sure. But they call us mamas ‘cuz we look after everybody.” That ethos of caring courses through the puʻuhonua, and every conversation is peppered with comments about ʻohana.

Lynn Luafalemana-Kalauli moved to the village with her husband and young son about a year ago. They had been renting a room in a friends’ house, but when that friend had a family member in need of a place to stay, they had to leave. They came here, and quickly found a sense of belonging.

“As soon as you move here, you can walk around and get to know everyone and they’ll all make you feel like family,” she says as her young son plays at her feet.

Now Luafalemana-Kalauli serves as a block captain and runs the donation tent, where villagers can find clothes, household items, and toiletries donated by supporters from around the island. As an active member in the community, she says there is constantly work to be done, helping newcomers get settled in, or connecting villagers with services to help them transition out.

“We enjoy doing it,” she says. “We want to make everyone feel comfortable and treat them like our own family.”

After a year of living at Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, Luafalemana-Kalauli and her husband are confident that they could find housing elsewhere, but they have made a decision to stay here in the village in order to help others back on their feet.

That sense of commitment is shared by others in the camp as well. While many people come into the community for a short time as they transition to other housing options, the most dedicated members are here out of a desire to help make that transition possible.

Adam works a retail job in Kapolei but, for him, helping to run the puʻuhonua is a full-time job in itself. And thatʻs why he is so perplexed by the state’s largely adversarial relationship with the village. Requests for a dedicated water meter that would allow villagers to pay their own water bill have been denied, as have requests for regular garbage pick-up and other sanitation measures. And then there’s the ever-present threat of a sweep that would clear the encampment and scatter this community across the coast.

“Why would you get rid of something that already works?” Adam asks. “We can hold up to maybe 400–500 people, roughly, and we help get the people into homes; we help people go into shelters if they want to go; we offer the services for it. So why would you want to get rid of something that’s already working? Especially we’re not even getting paid to do it.”

Media coverage and state treatment of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae oscillates between vilifying the residents as freeloaders who trash public space and hailing the encampment as a model “safe zone” for the houseless.

But what you need to know is this: On an island ravaged by exploitative industries like tourism and speculative development, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae provides an option for people who have been abandoned by the islands’ political leaders and feel adrift within its economic landscape. As Borge said at a February 16 press conference, “It’s not just about Waiʻanae, it’s about the whole island.”

That statement, perhaps, speaks to why this community is so important—not just to the people who reside within it, but to all working families in Hawaiʻi. Over 18 percent of Hawaiʻi households are living in poverty and more than half of all Hawaiʻi households face housing cost burden, meaning that they spend over 30 percent of their income in order to keep a roof over their heads.

Despite Hawaiʻi’s booming economy, an increasing number of households are moving to the mainland as the cost of living drives people off of the island. And this is a pattern—think back to the post-Statehood era, which saw large-scale evictions and a wave of Native Hawaiian out-migration, despite, or because of, tremendous economic growth and off-island investment.

For many in Hawaiʻi, especially Kanaka Maoli, our current, neoliberal political-socioeconomic system feels predatory, feeding off of the livelihoods of native and working people in order to serve foreign and mainland profit-interests.

Kalani Young, a lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu and a former resident of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae wrote in a recent facebook post, “The village shows us that homelessness is not about individual failings (it is not just about drug addiction or lazy people). It’s about a system of state violence built upon capitalism, settler colonialism (illegal occupation) and neoliberalism (privatization of social services).”

Traditionally, puʻuhonua were places where those who broke kapu could be absolved and find safety. But in contemporary times, puʻuhonua have served as communities where people can find respite from a system that stamps out collective living arrangements and punishes those who cannot generate enough income to get by in Hawaiʻi. But they do more than help people get back on their feet. They remind us that land and housing in Hawaiʻi do not have to be tied to real estate and profit, but can instead serve to foster kinship and empowerment. And for many, they are an assertion of Kanaka Maoli claims to land and ways of being in the world.

Back in the ‘90s, another puʻuhonua thrived just a few minutes down the Leeward Coast at Mākua Beach, before being dismantled by armed police and SWAT teams during Ben Cayetano’s administration. And on the Windward side, Puʻuhonua O Waimanālo has developed into a self-sustaining Kanaka Maoli community in the two decades since Bumpy Kanahele secured a long-term lease from the state for him and around 80 other houseless Hawaiians who had been living at Makapuʻu Beach. Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae has similarly been asking for a long-term lease from the state, in order to keep the community together and continue to serve as a transition point for people seeking housing.

While the state has refused to provide such a lease, there are signs of growing institutional support for the work being done here. Several state representatives introduced HB2754, which would have exempted “the land where the homeless community of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae currently exists from the offense of criminal trespass onto state lands.” Though the bill was shelved before a hearing, it suggests that residents of Puʻuhonua have had at least some success in changing the public’s view of their community.

For now, even though the threat of a sweep remains, life in the village goes on under the shade of the kiawe trees. And despite all the uncertainty, there is a sense of home here. As she lifts her son into her lap, Luafalemana-Kalauli says, “I guess if I think about it, I donʻt really feel homeless. This is my home, and this is my family. I’m committed to stay and help people who have nowhere else to go. Iʻm going to stay and fight.”