KAKAAKO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Approximately 500 people are now living along the sidewalks in Kaka'ako and officials say the vast majority are migrants from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
During World War II, the islands were critical assets and later became nuclear testing sites. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of more than 7,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs in the Marshall Islands. The atolls became radioactive and uninhabitable, forcing the local people to relocate.
In 1986, the United States signed agreements called the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Island. Palau was later added in 1994. The U.S. was granted exclusive territorial claims and in exchange, the citizens of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands were granted the right to live permanently -- or come and go as they please -- in the United States. They are legal residents, but not citizens -- though they are required to pay local, state and federal taxes.
Officials say it's difficult to determine exactly how many COFA migrants live in Hawai'i, because they can travel back and forth without a visa or
green card -- but current estimates are more than 12,000.
According to the state Department of Human Services Deputy Director Pankaj Bhanot, 1,150 COFA migrants are homeless statewide. The majority, 933, are on O'ahu -- and many are believed to be in Kaka'ako.
"When you drive through Kaka'ako currently, you'll actually see there's furniture out there, there's TVs -- people are normalizing that lifestyle
and that should not be a normal situation," said Kimo Carvalho, Director of Community Relations for the Institute for Human Services, the largest shelter on O'ahu.
The homeless encampment in Kaka'ako has grown so large, folks who live there are now calling it "The Village."
"This huge increase in Kaka'ako is mainly due to a lot of COFA migrants coming here to Hawaii without a plan or without an understanding of our policies and so they're getting kicked out of public housing and they're ending up on the streets," said Carvalho.
Department of Health workers have been mapping the growing tent city for nine months. They say more than two-thirds who live there are from COFA nations.
"Basically there's no housing. It might take five to seven years, I heard, on the wait-list to get into Public Authority Housing -- but then not
too many rentals that they can afford," said Vicki Bunao, an East Honolulu Public Health Nurse.
In September, they recorded 85 tents -- mostly by the John A. Burns School of Medicine. At it's peak in March, there were 131 -- the majority near the Children's Discovery Center.
As of their assessment last week, 116 tents were counted as far mauka as the Ward Center intersection.
"I think it will probably get worse if there's no solution to the housing shortage," said Bunao.
According to Bhanot, there is no intake process for COFA migrants, but a considerable number of them are receiving medical benefits, financial assistance, job training -- even child care services -- all programs designed to prevent them from ending up on the streets, but the biggest obstacle is housing.
Shelter officials say it's ironic in an area that is currently booming with construction.
"When you've got units that are going for over $3 million dollars -- the folks that work minimum wage and they're trying to get food on their table
for a family -- there's no way that they can pay those," said Sheila Beckham, the Waikiki Health CEO.
Next Step Shelter officials say they're nearly always at-capacity. Approximately, 30% of their clients are COFA migrants.
"We need to advocate very very strongly for making sure that we have adequate housing and it not only goes for the COFA migrant -- it goes for all of our folks that need shelter," said Beckham.
The Governor's office says it is working with the city and holding discussions at the highest levels to find long-term solutions to homelessness in
Hawai'i. State officials say it is imperative they work collaboratively with the city to transition the homeless to shelters and provide the necessary services to end the cycle of homelessness.