Volunteers Construct 19 Emergency Homeless Units in Single Day

June 14, 2020, 4:30 AM HST (Updated June 14, 2020, 4:40 AM)
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A member of HPD’s 49th class of recruits carries a window to a unit at the Na Lamakū temporary emergency housing site at Old Kona Airport Park on Saturday, June 13, 2020. PC: Rebecca Villegas

Three years ago, Hawai‘i County cleared out and cleaned up an illegal, makeshift homeless encampment erected in a narrow corridor tucked into the Southeastern corner of Old Kona Airport Park. On Saturday, a group of government officials, county workers, and volunteers constructed 19 miniature living spaces to welcome the evicted homeless back to their former residence on a temporary basis.

Na Lamakū will serve as an emergency shelter living space, complete with wraparound services, for up to 30 adult homeless individuals looking to take the first step toward self-sufficiency. The focus will be on recruiting homeless away from popular public areas where their presence can create unwanted impacts.

“The goal is to start with Pawai Place and transition all the people living outside the Friendly Place on the street to Na Lamakū,” said District 7 County Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who was on-site Saturday helping with construction. “I’m really pushing that to be a firm move. You can either come here or go somewhere else. But that’s not going to be an option, sleeping on the road there.”

Other areas where HOPE Services Hawai‘i, which is handling the management of the housing project, will focus recruitment efforts are Kailua Pier and Honokohau Harbor.

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“Those are public spaces, and unfortunately, some of the behaviors (of the homeless) … aren’t necessarily always things you want your children to see,” Villegas added.

Location, location, location

The initiative behind the 19 miniature residential units in Old Kona Airport Park has been driven by the outbreak of the coronavirus and is separate from the county’s plan to unveil a larger, permanent mauka site off Kealakehe Parkway called Kukuiola, formerly known as Village 9.

Since the local government began pushing homeless initiatives vigorously in 2015, when Hawai‘i County laid claim to the dubious distinction of the being home to the nation’s highest per-capita homelessness rate, the loudest community concern has remained the same: Where are shelters going to be built?

Shelters at the Na Lamakū temporary emergency housing site at Old Kona Airport Park were constructed in a single day. PC: Rebecca Villegas

“We’ve worked hard over the last six weeks in trying to find an appropriate space. And I get it, everybody’s like, ‘not in my backyard,’ but this is property the county has control over, and it’s an area that’s not definitively in the park,” said Sharon Hirota, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim in charge of homelessness.

“Those who are unsheltered already stay in this area, so they’ll be comfortable. I just want to tell the public we are going to monitor 24/7 and fence the area. This won’t be a place where people can do whatever they want.”

The first of the residents are expected to move in sometime next week. Many individuals currently living out of their cars and actively working paying jobs will also be afforded a place to park their vehicles in a safe and legal setting, as street parking overnight remains prohibited.

Learning from experience

The COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably increase the homeless rate on the Big Island after several years of consecutive downturn in the population.

“It will be significant, from what I’m hearing in the community,” said Hawai‘i County’s Deputy Managing Director Barbara Kossow.

When the outbreak of the virus set in across the islands, some of West Hawai‘i’s homeless took up shelter in the Holiday Inn Express in Kailua-Kona. However, officials went immediately to site selection and construction in Hilo on 32 of the same units now standing at Na Lamakū in the Old Kona Airport Park. The East Hawai‘i site is located in the parking lot of the NAS pool.

The Hilo project, which began housing individuals on April 24, has been a resounding success thus far, Hirota said. As of Saturday, the project has served 54 homeless individuals, with 15 moving on to more permanent housing solutions in less than two months.

A team effort constructed the Na Lamakū temporary emergency housing site at Old Kona Airport Park Saturday, June 13, 2020. PC: Rebecca Villegas

“What we want to say is this is not the end but is, in essence, the beginning,” Hirota said. “Of course, there are individuals who realize it’s just not the right place for them, so we’ve had some concerns, but nothing that couldn’t be managed by the staff on hand. Police have not been called to the site.”

She added the same results are expected in Kona, as only one individual has been evicted from the Holiday Inn Express for inappropriate behavior since the hotel opened its rooms to the homeless.

HOPE Services will have someone on-site in the park at all times, including at least two people staying overnight every evening, to manage the residents and enforce rules. Behaviors like violence and drug use will not be allowed.

Wraparound services will also be provided by partners like West Hawai‘i Community Health Center, Big Island Substance Abuse, Mental Health Kokua, the faith-based community, and any other organization offering a service the population at Na Lamakū proves to need, Hirota said.

Portable bathroom facilities will also be installed at the site, and a mobile hygiene van offering showers will stop by twice weekly. Grab-and-go meals will be regularly available to residents.

Come together, right now

The site’s 18 residential units and one manager unit came entirely together in less than one day on the backs of nearly 60 volunteers, many of whom are, or have been, affiliated with the Hawai‘i Fire Department — namely its 49th recruit class.

“This has been phenomenal,” Villegas said. “It’s been really cool to be here with essentially three generations of the fire department — the retried firefighters, the current firefighters, and the recruits.”

State and federal assistance, including CARES Act funding because of the link to COVID-19, provided the $150,000 cost of site supplies and construction. Kossow said CARES Act funding will also pay to keep the proverbial lights on at Na Lamakū, although the units will not be equipped with actual electricity.

Tinguely Development performed the pre-construction work at no cost and had a crew on-site Saturday to help with construction.

Volunteers and crews literally raised the roof, 19 times to be exact, at the Na Lamakū temporary emergency housing site at Old Kona Airport Park on June 13, 2020. PC: Rebecca Villegas

The county procured the materials for the build-out from HPM Building Supply, and Darryl Oliveira, a former firefighter and current HPM safety and internal control manager, explained the layout.

“This is a takeoff from the Pāhoa project,” said Oliveira, referencing work he and HPM did to help construct a more elaborate site in the wake of the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea. “We used a design HPM was marketing as a utility shed, easily modified by making it a little bigger and putting in windows.”

All 19 structures are 10×8 foot prefab units, complete with a window and a lockable door. All sections of each unit were assembled in HPM’s manufacturing facility, delivered to the site, and then stood up in a way Oliveira described as similar to a lego set.

“The county can very easily disassemble (the site) just as fast as it came up,” he continued. “So if the units were to be repurposed to another site or if we had an issue during hurricane season, it all could be transported and stood back up as part of the recovery.”

One potential problem could be the heat at ocean level. Because of that, construction did not include bird blocking between the units’ roofs and the top of the sidewalls, which allows for more air circulation and an escape hatch for rising heat. Installation and drywall could be added, Oliveira explained, but that would complicate the ability to quickly relocate the units.

Not forever

In a press release, the county said it plans to eventually move all residents up to the Kukuiola site off Kealakehe Parkway once it’s ready for residents.

In just one day, volunteers built the Na Lamakū temporary emergency housing site at Old Kona Airport Park. PC: Rebecca Villegas

Although, Villegas is hopeful that Na Lamakū, in its capacity as a bridge site, will significantly decrease the number of people living in Kona who will be in need of emergency housing when that time comes.

“To have just this little bit of help, a place to sleep and a place to keep your things and lock them up, you can go to work and be a more impactful member of our community because you got some rest and something to eat,” she said.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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