Tents set up for houseless in Hilo a temporary respite for those living near the canal

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Twenty 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tents were set up for those houseless individuals living near the downtown Hilo canal in July 2024. Photo credit: Hawai‘i County

At least 20 houseless individuals living near a canal in downtown Hilo are now taking shelter in temporary shade tents on a vacant gravel lot on the southeast side of Ponahawai Street.

With the Army Corps of Engineers coming to inspect the canal this week, Maurice Messina, director of Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation Department, said the area had to be cleared out. Initially, 40 houseless individuals and couples lived near the canal for about six months.

The temporary respite area on Ponahawai Street opened July 5 where some of the individuals from the canal encampment are now staying till a more permanent housing solution is found. Twenty 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tents were erected and as people leave, the tents will be taken down.

Since the inception of the respite area, Hope Services Hawaiʻi, Neighborhood Place of Puna, and Project Vision Hawaiʻi have given former canal occupants a place to store their items and receive vital services.

“This temporary site will be in place only through the end of July and is exclusively for individuals who were occupying the canal area at the time of the clearing,” county officials stated. “It will not be open to other individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown Hilo.”


Individuals who violate park rules will be removed from the area and will face enforcement actions.

  • Twenty 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tents were set up for those houseless individuals living near the downtown Hilo canal in July 2024. Photo credit: Hawai‘i County
  • Twenty 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tents were set up for those houseless individuals living near the downtown Hilo canal in July 2024. Photo credit: Hawai‘i County
  • County workers clean up debris from homeless encampment near the downtown Hilo canal on July 8, 2024. Photo credit: Hawai‘i County

On Monday, the Department of Public Works, Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Housing and Community Development, and various community partners cleared out the homeless camp.

Messina said crews removed normal trash, a hodgepodge of pallets, old tents and “everything you would accumulate if you were living in an authorized place for six months.”

From what he could tell, Messina said most of the people from the canal area were happy to get into the respite area or a shelter.

While onsite, Messina spoke to one of the houseless individuals who told him there was space for her and her dog at a nearby shelter.


“The hope is more people will get the services they need,” he said.

Officials with Hope Services said the respite area allows individuals to stay in the same area, keep the connection with service providers intact, and provide a smooth transition into shelter and permanent housing.

“This setup also allows people from the encampment to stay with their own community, which might feel safer than going out on their own,” according to Hope Services.

Looking ahead, the County of Hawaiʻi, in collaboration with The Salvation Army Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division, anticipates the opening of a new homeless shelter in downtown Hilo in late August. This facility will serve as a permanent evening shelter for all homeless individuals in the Downtown Hilo area.

“The purpose of the temporary respite and transition area is to provide individuals with a safe and dignified space to receive services and care without further burdening the Downtown Hilo business and residential community, which is already grappling with the nation’s largest humanitarian issue — homelessness,” said Mayor Mitch Roth.


County Councilmember Jenn Kagiwada, who represents the district, said she appreciates the Roth administration’s consideration of the downtown area and residents with the respite area.

“Instead of scattering people into our parks and business doorways, this temporary setup allows our community organizations to connect with the houseless in an area that’s better maintained with porta potties and tents,” said Kagiwada.

Persons experiencing homelessness who may want/need access to community resources, should connect with the Hawai‘i County Homeless Engagement Hui by visiting or by calling 808-501 -1413, ext. 3.

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