Kahului’s homeless crisis gets an unflattering comparison: It’s starting to look like Honolulu’s

Published: Jun. 1, 2019 at 9:58 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - It’s a scene that’s relatively new for Maui: Homeless campsites popping up along the roadside in Kahului.

Service providers say the homeless are migrating to town from beaches and out in the brush.

“That’s where they feel safe ... because they’re visible,” said Monique Yamashita, the head of the island’s largest homeless service provider.

But that’s not all that’s motivating the move.

Officials say addiction is also driving users into business districts.

“People who were on drugs tell us they spend a couple hours out there collecting money," said Lt. Gov. Josh Green. “And that’s enough to take care of their fix of methamphetamine.”

Earlier this month. Green spent a week touring the state to see first-hand how the homeless crisis is affecting each island, speaking to homeless service providers, government officials and residents.

Read more from this series:

Yamashita says Maui’s lack of affordable housing is a major driver of the homeless crisis.

Once someone loses their place, she said, it’s almost impossible to find a new one. Even getting into one of the island’s three shelters can be difficult because they’re always full.

“Where the state might give us a guideline to get someone in and out within 90 days, in actuality it probably takes six months,” said Yamashita.

Brandie Waikiki knows about the dearth of affordable housing first-hand.

“I actually work two jobs and I still can’t make ends meet,” said Waikiki, who ended up homeless on the beach with her three kids after the house she was renting got sold.

That triggered a downward spiral.

“I was sober when I lost the house that we was living in. The drug use progressed while I was on the beach,” she said. “I was hooked on opiates.”

Next month marks one year since Waikiki has been in a shelter. She’s finally kicked her habit. But even with those two jobs she’s working, she still can’t afford a place of her own.

“For a two-bedroom where I can live with my three kids comfortably, it’s $1,500,” she said.

Yamashita said the situation is only getting worse.

“We’ve seen families that just aren’t able to find housing,” she said. “They can’t find rentals because their family is too large. Or perhaps the landlord won’t rent to them because of their family composition.”

Plans for a handful of new affordable units are in the works.

After sitting empty for more than a decade, an old University of Hawaii dormitory in Kahului will be transformed into apartments for working families.

Renovations are expected to take two years.

Officials say a lack of housing is only part of what’s wrong.

“Virtually all of our all of our islands have no in-patient drug treatment beds,” said Green. “Without treatment in all parts of the state, we’re going to have a hard time solving this problem.”

That gap in services often falls on hospitals and shelters.

“We don’t drug or alcohol test anymore,” said Yamashita. “We take them in as they are and work with them where they’re at.”

She added the shelter environment isn’t always good for people with severe mental health issues.

“It’s stressful,” said Yamashita. “It can be very chaotic for someone who has a mental health issue.”

That prompts a lot of homeless to leave because they’re more comfortable on their own.

In Kahului, Green said this as he looked at people lying on the sidewalk along Alamaha Street: “It’s starting to look a little more in some cases like we see in Honolulu."

It’s an unflattering comparison that has one Maui state representative worried that too many handouts might backfire.

“We might be attracting people to come here,” said state Rep. Lynn DeCoite. “And that’s the comments I’m hearing from people within my district.”

She says lawmakers need to be cautious in their decision making because what happens next is pivotal.

DeCoite added, “We want to keep Maui Maui.”

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