Yurts for the homeless
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer
By Eloise Aguiar
HAU'ULA — A $600,000 state grant has thrust a small Hau'ula church into the thick of efforts to address homelessness on O'ahu.
The Ohana, Family of the Living God Church, with an active membership of about 100, plans to erect yurts — large tent-like structures — and offer housing, services, guidance and food to the newly homeless using a network of partnering agencies, churches and schools.
The church faces a number of obstacles, including inexperience in dealing with an effort of this scale and managing such a substantial amount of money. It also lacks a site for the yurts and hasn't yet lined up a next step that will enable clients to move into transitional housing after 40 days in the yurts as its plan calls for.
But driven by the growing need and encouraged by the success of a pilot project conducted almost two years ago, the church is pushing ahead.
For 27 years, the church has done what it could to help the less fortunate, relying on donations and volunteers.
Pastor Sadrian "Brother Sage" Chee said his years of working with the homeless and his experience on the boards of several community groups have given him and the church the edge needed to be successful with the $600,000 grant and the program they call Puu Honua, Initial Contact Shelter.
Chee is a member of the boards of the Ko'olauloa Community Health and Wellness Center and the Honolulu Community Action Program and works with the 40 partners that make up the Windward Homeless Coalition.
He has also received a grant from another group, Compassion Capitol, that will give his church technical assistance in managing the state grant.
"We're so used to working in the trenches," Chee said. "We want to be there ... especially for those who are getting thrown into homelessness, and not only provide shelter but make initial contact."
As the state works to bring O'ahu's homelessness problem under control, officials have found that few organizations are equipped to run full-blown shelter operations and that all are stretched thin. As a result, officials are encouraging some innovative, if sometimes less proven, programs.
Ohana, Family of the Living God Church was among more than a dozen groups — experienced and new — receiving a share of $16.6 million in grants-in-aid last year for programs.
Some critics have said more of the money should have been devoted to existing providers that might have been able to put it to use better and faster.
Chee said his church didn't receive the money until January but began recruitment of homeless in October and serving people in December. The idea was to start early, take in a few people and fine-tune the program's policies and procedures. About 15 people have completed the program, with some finding jobs and a place to live, he said.
Sonseeahray "Siri" Wall, 24 and a mother of two children, just completed the program. She had been living on the beach for three years with her father and met members of the church at a monthly Friday Youth Outreach at Hau'ula Beach Park.
Wall is working toward a high school diploma, with plans to become a social worker some day. Last week she was helping the church distribute school supplies.
The program got her started on a new life.
"I didn't have resources," Wall said as tears welled up in her eyes. "I didn't know how or where to go. They gave me a life."
Although Wall is unemployed and hasn't found permanent housing, the church was able to transition her into another program that the church operates but is not funded by this grant, where her progress can continue.
"Once they start moving forward, you don't want to put them back into homelessness," Chee said. "So we're working hard trying to get them stable, trying to find resources."
IT WILL TAKE A VILLAGE
Chee's vision is to build a village of yurts in Ko'olauloa or on the North Shore ranging in size from 12 feet in diameter for possible family use to 30 feet for recreational use. With the help of others, he has put together three yurts in his back yard.
The village will be able to operate without hooking up to sewer and electricity, he said, and portable restrooms and a generator for electricity will be used.
He said the church has set aside about one-third of the funding to hire four people (project manager, program manager, construction manager and residence manager) to operate the program and one-third to purchase the yurts and equipment such as solar lights, a backup generator and portable stoves.
Chee said he is negotiating for a site now but is open to offers from the community.
He said his grant allows for bypassing some of the regulations governing a development. But he said he would not take his village into a community without first discussing his plans with the people there.
Part of the difficulty any such plan faces is the "not in my back yard" syndrome and the stigma associated with anything that resembles a "tent city."
Early proposals to help deal with the Wai'anae Coast homeless crisis involved tents, but the proposal was roundly criticized and never came to pass. Later, the tents showed up anyway as people with no place else to go pitched their encampments on the beaches and in the parks up and down the coast.
But the yurts are a far cry from the small tents common to the Wai'anae Coast. One of the smaller ones is 8 feet high at the center of a cone ceiling. Larger yurts have higher ceilings. Chee will build his yurts high above the ground on platforms.
Meanwhile, Chee has a waiting list of 50 applicants.
For Shannon Wood, with the Windward Homeless Coalition, Chee's project raises questions about the wisdom of placing the village far away from jobs.
The church's plan is creative, she said, but she doesn't like the idea of setting aside a large piece of land where only poor people live, because that can create festering social problems.
"The problem I see facing it is infrastructure, the sanitation, parking, public safety concerns," Wood said. "The other biggy issue is if you put it in the country, rural or agriculture area, you have to go through zoning process, land-use change."
Chee is forging new ground, but he's not doing it alone. He is getting help from state agencies and other experienced groups. But he hopes to help others put together similar villages.
He has spoken with Kaulana Park, the state's homeless solutions coordinator for the Wai'anae Coast, who noted that most importantly Chee needs to involve the community in the choice of location and the design.
"If he's already building, he might be putting the cart before the horse," Park said. "But you know what? He means well and you can't take that away. He goes in and tries to do something right. You just want to make sure they do it right."
The funding is being overseen by the state Office of Community Service. Sam Aiona, executive director of the office, said Gov. Linda Lingle's administration supports Chee's efforts.
Chee's plan centers on a 40-day program to orient newly homeless people and get them set up with services and training. The goal is to get them into transitional housing or permanent housing, Aiona said.
"This is not like a tent city because tent city is more long-term program," he said. "Brother Chee's approach is 40 days and you're out."
But Chee said people in the program who are not able to find housing won't be tossed out on the street. He intends to help them one way or another, he said.
Reach Eloise Aguiar at firstname.lastname@example.org.