Now known as the state with the greatest homeless population per capita, our island is battling a predicament that has been a long time presence. Possible solutions and the politics that come along with them are buzzing throughout the islands, with the emergency proclamation from Governor David Ige to Maui’s own initiative by Mayor Alan Arakawa. What is often overlooked are the stories and experiences of the unsheltered, as well as the people who serve them.
Take Richard Hoang, for example, who is the program director at Hale Kau Kau located at Saint Theresa’s Church in Kihei. Hale Kau Kau is amidst its 25th year, feeding the homeless of Maui’s south shore, and has served over 1.2 million meals. When broken down, that is approximately 60,000 meals each year, at least 75 meals per day. In recent years, Hoang remarked, there has been a visible increase in the homeless population, putting more on Hale Kau Kau’s plate.
“I see an influx of a lot of transients,” Hoang said. “It’s very seasonal. They come and go. But…here we don’t ask any questions. If you’re hungry just come, and we provide the food.”
Aside from their transient portion of clients, their kitchen serves a majority of locals and long-time clients, too. Many clients are on a first name basis with Hoang and the volunteers. Hale Kau Kau has created a gathering place to socialize if you choose, and provides a wholesome home-cooked meal.
Behind their kitchen doors you will find Robert Rodriguez, the head chef at Hale Kau Kau. Five days out of his week are dedicated to cooking for the less fortunate, while he also maintains a prep cook position at Da Kitchen restaurant in Kahului. “I like to get my reviews,” Rodriguez said. “It makes me happy.”
Richard Heitmeyer also volunteers alongside Rodriguez, and participates in the evening food service 7 days a week. What sets Heitmeyer apart from most volunteers is the fact that he is homeless. Being on Maui for 25 years, retired Heitmeyer has been living in his van for nine months, and despite his current bout with colon cancer, he serves the unsheltered with a smile. Originally from Northern Michigan, Heitmeyer says that Hawaii is the only place he would want to be. “It’s easy living,” he said.
While in the kitchen you may also find Lisa Darcy snapping fresh peas or partaking in some type of food prep for the evening meal. Darcy is a community advocate and has served on the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s Board of Directors. She is avid and dedicated to serving others, and feels that a spotlight is finally being shed a subject long pushed aside.
“I’ve been screaming into the wind for 10 years,” Darcy said. “There’s a massive disconnect between reality and the community.”
Each of these volunteers, among many others, selflessly dedicates their time to providing for Maui’s disadvantaged and unsheltered. One of the many who is thankful for these volunteers is an unsheltered woman named Michelle, who has been attending Hale Kau Kau’s evening meal service for 11 years and resides primarily on Maui’s south shore.
Originally from Los Angeles, Michelle made her way to Maui 14 years ago. After losing her job, Maui’s expensive cost of living took its toll. Hale Kau Kau has provided a haven for her to relax and not worry about the constant dangers of living on the street. “I know I’m going to get fed one meal a day,” she said. Despite her current living conditions, her outlook on life remains positive.
“This is a small period of my life… we learn something everyday—if you don’t, you’re missing out,” Michelle said. “You just gotta get up and swing the bat everyday.”
Then there’s a longtime familiar face for many Maui residents, a man who goes by the name “Country.” Country has been going to the evening meal services at since day one. Originally from Texas with a veteran background, 80-year-old Country resides near a storage facility in Kihei, accompanied by his dog Rambo. “This is a place I totally love,” said Country, referring to his sanctuary, Hale Kau Kau. For the past 25 years, he feels blessed to have had a safe place to have a tasty meal and catch up with friends.
Most of the organizations that assist the unsheltered are a part of a coalition known as the Maui Homeless Alliance. One of the many charities alongside Hale Kau Kau is Ka Hale A Ke Ola (KHAKO), sheltering the homeless since 1986. Over the years the organization has grown into more than just a shelter, offering many means of assistance including case managers and partnerships with government agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). KHAKO gives its clients shelter, but also helps them to move forward and eventually lead self-sustaining lives.
Aside from being a wife and mother of five, Michelle “Shelley” Blackburn has worked to help Maui’s unsheltered with KHAKO for 10 years. Starting at Child Protective Services (CPS) and later moving on to a case manager position at the shelter’s Lahaina location, Blackburn is now the Chief Operating Officer at KHAKO. Within the past decade she has noticed a dramatic increase in their number of clients, locals and transients alike, and now helps to manage a shelter that is at 100 percent capacity with a tremendous wait list.
As of Nov. 30, the Wailuku site has 253 clients in house and 293 individuals on the waitlist. Out of their in-house total, 90 clients are children. In Lahaina, they have 192 clients, 62 of them being children. Both shelters are at maximum capacity, the specific reason being that there is an inadequate amount affordable housing opportunities. This is limiting people from moving out of KHAKO’s facilities.
Fortunate enough to have a spot at KHAKO is Debora Anne Granados, 51, and her 14-month-old granddaughter, Mary Rose. Granados has been living at KHAKO’s Wailuku location for 11 months, but has been in and out of homelessness for years. Maui’s high cost of living, sparse affordable housing, and being a convicted felon has limited Granados’ opportunities for shelter. On top of it all, a severe knee injury has left her itching for work but unable to do so.
“We know what it’s like to be homeless and we don’t want to be like that again,” stated Granados. When referring to her time in prison, she expressed the fear and sadness in leaving that home. “I cried when I left… the talent, love, support, resources—everything was great.” Leaving prison meant being back on the streets and away from her new found community of sisters.
Thanks to KHAKO, Granados was able to escape life on the street and find comfort and security. She notes that the respect and support KHAKO gives to all their clients has amazing results if you are willing to work with them. They are giving her and many others the opportunity to get back on their feet.
Unique to other places across the globe is the aloha spirit of our islands, which each of these organizations possess. Hoang, Darcy, Blackburn and many others serve with heart and a smile, as Blackburn notes many of us are one paycheck away from similar circumstances.
“Our mission is to feed with compassion and aloha,” said Hoang. “My wish? To be out of a job.”