Hawaii homeless have home on donated buses
|||Special report: Homeless on the Wai'anae Coast|
|Photo gallery: Homeless finding a home aboard donated buses|
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
The first of 18 tour buses to be converted into mobile homeless shelters will be unveiled today at the kickoff to the third annual walk around the island for homeless awareness.
The finished bus — which will be on display at stops along the route of the 10-day charity event "Walk the Talk" — could start housing up to eight people within two weeks. And organizers hope to have five more refitted buses sheltering people by February.
Advocates are excited about the program — and not only because buses that would have been junked are being used for a good cause. They say the buses represent out-of-the-box thinking needed to help solve the state's homeless crisis.
"It's great we're trying to get creative," said Kent Anderson, chairman of Partners in Care, a consortium of service providers. "The more out-of-the-box solutions we can create to get to multiple areas of the homeless population, the better."
The growth of the homeless population in the Islands — spurred largely by a lack of affordable housing — is one of the most critical social welfare issues facing the state.
And the bus project comes as other unconventional solutions are budding. Groups are getting homeless off the streets — and one step closer to permanent housing — by putting them up in churches, warehouses and yurts.
The new strategies are born of the sheer number of homeless who need help, coupled with the high startup costs for traditional shelters. Even the state is thinking unconventionally: Its Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, opened in May 2006, is a warehouse with cardboard cubicles as room dividers.
And its Wai'anae shelter features two temporary, prefabricated metal and plastic structures on a concrete base.
PARKED AROUND ISLAND
The bus project — kicked off nearly two years ago — is the brainchild of Utu Langi, founder of Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope and manager of the Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako.
Langi said the refitted tour buses will be parked in spots around the island at night and moved to a bus depot in Kalaeloa during the day for maintenance and cleaning. People will not be allowed to travel in the buses, but the program will have small buses to get people to services, jobs and stores.
Curtis Cropar, executive director of Hawaiian Hope, a homeless services program, said many homeless people can't get jobs because they don't have state IDs or birth certificates.
And getting to state offices or other services during business hours is a challenge if homeless don't have transportation — especially if they live in Wai'anae or other rural spots.
He said he hopes the approach of the bus program — offering shelter and transportation, along with services — will help homeless people move into long-term housing faster.
Still, Langi concedes the tour buses won't be for everyone.
The buses offer little privacy or storage.
The first finished tour bus has been repainted, fitted with wooden bunk beds and overhauled to make sure it is roadworthy.
Though some of the buses have bathrooms, Langi said, portable toilets will be set up wherever the buses are parked.
Though the tour buses are far from luxurious, Langi said, they will allow a shelter to come to homeless people in the community they're comfortable in — rather than forcing homeless to relocate if they want off the streets. Langi says homeless people could opt to stay in the buses for months at a time. Or they could use the buses as a short respite from the streets.
Roberts Hawaii donated the buses, which would have otherwise been sent to the scrap heap. Langi has $500,000 in state funds for a one-year pilot program.
The state money will largely go to hiring staff, including a driver and case manager. Langi said it takes about $10,000 to prepare a bus, and he hopes to raise more money through the charity walk. The fundraising goal is $100,000.
$13,000 IN PLEDGES
The bus program is expected to spur plenty of discussion along the walk for the homeless, which Langi also started. In addition to showing off the buses during the walk, Langi will be talking to participants and people along the route about other ideas to address homelessness.
More than 55 walkers have signed up for "Walk the Talk," which has about $13,000 in pledges. Cropar, who is also project chair for the walk, said the event is meant to raise awareness in a meaningful, public way.
"We want to get more people involved," Cropar said.
Beyond the walking, in which participants cover about 13 miles a day, each leg of the event features a community meeting at night. The gathering is meant to get people talking about homelessness and how they can help.
Participants can walk one day, several days or the whole island. They can also opt to walk the last mile back to the state Capitol, where participants will hold a homeless awareness rally.
About 300 people walked in 2005 and again last year, and Langi expects about the same turnout this year.
Langi said he started "Walk the Talk" as a way to spark discussion about homelessness. Three years later, with new shelters in the Islands and millions in state funding dedicated to the problem, Langi said it's even more important now to keep a spotlight on the issue so that people don't get complacent.
"There's still a lot more work to be done," Langi said. "But I'm hoping that one day we won't have to walk anymore."
Homeless have a home aboard donated buses
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.