Long America’s vacation paradise, Hawaii is in a state of emergency as it battles a homelessness crisis. Could Pu’uhonua safe zones help alleviate the problem?
Three backpack-laden children chattered happily as they trudged down a dirt path and disappeared into a patch of thorny brush along a highway.
Tucked around a corner, a woman named Twinkle Borge greeted the schoolkids from her metal folding chair. A seven-year-old girl tugging a red wagon full of water jugs paused to give Borge a kiss on the cheek. Then all three walked into their home: the largest homeless encampment in Hawaii.
Remarkably, some 200 people live there, and six infants were born there over the past year alone. Even in the state with the highest homelessness rate in America, it draws attention. Yet while residents acclaim it as a novel community that incorporates ancient Hawaiian principles, it is now at risk of being swept away.
“We know from what we’ve seen in the past, once an encampment goes above a certain size, it becomes unmanageable,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness.
Borge might disagree. For 10 years she has served as leader of Pu’uhonua o Waianae, or the Refuge of Waianae, named for the local town about 30 miles from Honolulu. It covers almost 20 acres of state land adjacent to a boat harbor, and its swept dirt trails, lined with tents and pallets, lead to the ocean, where on summer days children and adults can often be found seeking relief from the heat.
Unlike encampments on the streets of downtown Honolulu or Waikiki, the camp has a large number of families, with 45 children among them. And while other encampments across the islands are cleared away and their residents displaced at regular intervals, Borge’s encampment has endured, a fact that some credit to her leadership.