Puuhonua O Waianae: Hawaii’s refuge for the homeless, by the homeless

By Alexander Deedy, Spare Change News

When Twinkle Borge heard about the community meeting in 2010 to discuss the growing homeless encampment population near Waianae Boat Harbor on Oahu’s west coast, she decided the camp’s residents should have a voice.

Borge had been living in the camp since 2006, a few years after she became homeless. At the time there were only seven people living there, she says. But as the homeless got swept from  camps elsewhere on the island, they trickled into the village.

A pathway through the Puuhonua O Waianae homeless camp in Hawaii. Credit: Alexander Deedy

The camp became known as Puuhonua O Waianae, a homage to the traditions of old Hawaii, where a Puuhonua was considered a sacred place free of punishment and judgment for natives who broke the law.

Blunt and indomitable, Borge was comfortable acting as camp mediator, but her leadership responsibilities escalated at the meeting when the harbormaster gave her 60 days to clean up the camp.

Over the next two months, Borge kicked out six families that were causing trouble and instituted a set of governing rules, including monthly meetings and required volunteer hours to maintain the village.

Anyone who enters the camp is now sent to Borge for a screening, which she starts by asking if they’d rather live in a shelter or in the camp. She also asks each prospective resident is if they have any outstanding warrants. If they do, she contacts police and arranges for the person to see a judge.

While it was difficult to kick the six families out of the camp, Borge says it was necessary. “It’s not like I wanted to it, I had to,” she explains.

Borge and the camp’s matriarchs didn’t stop there.

Twinkle Borge, matriarch and mediator within the Puuhonua O Waianae homeless camp. Credit: Alexander Deedy

Over the past six years they installed a solar-powered light that illuminates a section of pathway through the camp, and Borge says she’s seeking sponsors for more so that kids can find their way around at night.

Borge estimated that 40 of camp’s residents now have jobs, and when a storm rolls through that damages camps, everyone pitches in to help families rebuild before working on individual camps. She’s also hopes to set up a system to get income for the rest of the community.

“I’m trying to make our community formal,” she says. “And not something others think we are.”

Borge has also been experimenting with hydroponics. She set up a  20-by-20 tent in the camps community area community area. Inside the tent, two halves of a plastic 50-gallon drum sit above a water tank and boast sprouts of taro and lettuce. When the plants are watered, excess liquid drains into a holding tank below, and holds freshwater tilapia fish.

None of the plants in the drums are large enough to eat yet, but on a nearby hillside one resident is growing some promising crops. The end goal, Borge says, is to get enough crops growing that they can set up a tent by the road and sell produce to Waianae residents.

“When you think of a homeless camp, this isn’t what you imagine”

The camp’s residents use pallets to develop infrastructure, much like in Old Puuhonua, where there were great walls and carved wooden images.

Residents of the camp initially wanted pallets just to elevate their tents off the ground, Jerrell Tate, a pastor who regularly ministers in the camp, says. Then when a call went out that the homeless needed pallets to stay dry, local businesses answered generously.

Wooden pallets became the barrier separating the camp from the beach, working as fences surrounding individual tents and borders for the dirt pathways that meander through the encampment.

Inside the camp, blue tarps are stretched over couches, generators can be heard humming and even sounds of TVs carry from some tents.

“When you think of a homeless camp, this isn’t what you imagine,” Tate says, gesturing around him.

Around Waianae, some people still have the perception that the homeless camp is full of drug addicts and mentally unstable, and that authorities should clear it out, says Cedric Gates, the chair of the Waianae Neighborhood Board. But plenty of other people have compassion for those in the camp, and as someone who works with the village’s leaders, Gates says he’s part of the latter group.

Brenda Cruz, who says she has been living in the Puuhonua O Waianae camp longer than anyone, washes her clothes in an old cooler on the beach. Credit: Alexander Deedy

“I would debunk the narrative that the people – all the people – living in there are substance abusers and mentally ill,” he says. “There’s working class families there and they are struggling because they can’t find any low-income rentals to live in.”

In Hawaii, where wages are similar to much of the contiguous United States but cost of living is considerably higher, the per capita homeless rate is the highest in the nation. Homelessness is so pervasive in the state that Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, declared last October a state of emergency to deal with the issue.

The governor’s co-ordinator on homelessness is Scott Morishige, a young Hawaiian who says the state’s approach in treating the homeless is grounded in Ohana Nui, a Hawaiian phrase that means ‘extended family.’

Now almost a year into his position, he says the state is tackling the homeless issue through three lenses: creating permanent, affordable housing, addressing human services needs and ensuring public safety.

He noted the last point is important because homeless sometimes settle in dangerous spots, like on the side of a cliff or by a gas line. In the case of Puuhonua O Waianae, the village isn’t in a dangerous spot, but the land was intended for another use.

The 20-acre lot is under the control the state Department of Aquatic Resources because under the dirt, in ponds of mixed salt and freshwater, live a rare species of Hawaiian red shrimp found only on Oahu’s west coast. When biologists last assessed the property several years ago, Morishige said they found the human encampment had likely caused some damage to the population.

“As we face issues like homeless… how do we balance these competing mandates?” Morishige asked. “How do we balance the needs of the people who are there – not all necessarily by choice – who have now made this their home, with the need to preserve the unique wildlife for future generations?”

“There’s working class families there and they are struggling because they can’t find any low-income rentals to live in”

The starting point is through conversations with residents, which Morishige regularly has with people from the camp. Recently, he asked Borge to stop taking in any more residents.

“One of the concerns is, if the encampment continues to grow, at what point will Twinkle and her captains be able to kind of maintain order?” Morishige asks.

Borge says she’s refused to stop taking in new people.

“Why would we want to turn anybody away without help?” she replies.

Borge says she loves the camp’s residents, even if some of them are hard-headed and some are addicts. “They good people, some just made wrong choices,” she says.

Borge estimated that over the last few years the camp has helped over 200 people transition into housing. Not one of them has ended up back on the street, she says.

For many others, like Borge, the camp has been their home for so long that they have no desire to enter a house.  In fact, homeless isn’t a term that Borge likes to use. Instead, they think of the camp’s residents as “houseless.”

“This is my home,” Borge says firmly.