FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
A homeless woman sat yesterday at a bus stop at Republican and Kalihi streets in Kalihi Kai.
Church shelters city park refugees
Dozens of homeless people reject a camp near the police station in favor of Kawaiaha‘o
Two weeks after the city started shutting down Ala Moana Beach Park nightly, 72 homeless people sleeping at Kawaiaha'o Church have formed a close-knit community complete with a voting council, rules, job placement and security.
And as the number of people sleeping in the park next to Honolulu Police Department headquarters -- where Mayor Mufi Hannemann told homeless they could go after getting kicked out of Ala Moana -- has dwindled, the population at Kawaiaha'o has more than doubled. By 9 p.m. last night, when homeless are allowed to camp by police headquarters, no one was there.
Those who stay at the church's meeting hall know it is just a matter of time before they are asked to leave. They are being allowed to stay on a week-by-week basis. But in the meantime, they say, they are happy to have a clean, well-ordered place to stay that is run by the homeless and for the homeless.
"I feel comfortable over here," said Kaliko Kane, who has been homeless for six years.
Central Union Church is also housing about 50 people who used to live in the park. Church leaders met Thursday to discuss what options are available for the homeless if the city makes the Ala Moana night closures permanent.
On his first night at Kawaiaha'o, Kane volunteered to put together a security detail and signed on 12 other homeless men. Most days, he stays up until 3:30 a.m. with a few others to watch over the sleeping homeless and quell any disputes.
Those staying at the church are given a flier at the door, letting them know where they can sleep, eat, smoke and shower.
Leinati Matautia, who was voted leader of the group by a six-member council, says the self-imposed, tightly run organization has given the homeless a sense of community pride.
She is hoping the experience will help them stick together as she and her council try to work for a more permanent solution. Already, they have asked for a meeting with the mayor, as yet with no response.
Matautia has also formed an organization, Ohana O Hawaii.
"It helps for all of us to be heard," she said yesterday as she stood in the hall, watching over a group of council members who were neatly setting out donated clothes, toiletries and magazines on a table for the homeless to pick up.
"One day, we'll all look back at this and laugh about it. We're going to show them we can do it."
Several of those staying at Kawaiaha'o said they spent a night at the police park after Ala Moana was closed on March 27, and decided not to return because of the conditions.
One woman said the restrooms were too far from the camping site and in a dark area. Another said the park was muddy. Matautia has also been encouraging homeless at the park to come to Kawaiaha'o. She has passed out fliers there and elsewhere.
"Come here to us and share the love," she tells those she meets on the streets, showering them with a bright, wide smile.
Mornings at Kawaiaha'o start well before 6:30, when breakfast is served courtesy of Kawaiaha'o and other churches. The homeless leave at 8:30 a.m., as the church's hall is used during the day as a meeting place.
About 25 percent of the homeless go to work, Matautia said. Others seek out aid from service providers.
Every morning and night, at breakfast and dinner, Matautia addresses the group, giving them word from the church's kahu, the Rev. Curt Kekuna, letting them know how her day has been and asking them to remain hopeful for a permanent solution.
"I want to assure them -- young and old -- that there's hope," said Matautia, who has become a social worker, a friend and a mother to many homeless at the church. She is known as "Mama Lei," a nickname she got after four years in Ala Moana, cooking for homeless who got donations from food pantries.
Since becoming leader of the group, Matautia has helped two homeless people at the church get jobs, talked a full-to-capacity homeless shelter into taking a family and persuaded four people to go into drug rehab. She said she wants the Kawaiaha'o homeless community to be a new start for people, including herself.
"This gives me more courage, strength and purpose," said Matautia, who was forced to drop out of a law school when her father fell ill in the early 90s. From there she slipped into a long crystal methamphetamine addiction.
"I struggled the struggle," she says, looking down at her shoes. "Just doing what I'm doing gives me so much joy."
Daily, the group's council meets to discuss how to get more attention for their protest in front of Honolulu Hale, and brainstorms ideas for getting word out on their plight. Betty Thomas, the group's donations coordinator, treasurer and picket-line captain, said residents seem compassionate.
But the slight, hardened woman, who lost her apartment seven months ago after getting laid off, also said too many people, lawmakers included, think the homeless are social rejects, spaced out on drugs or alcohol.
"Why are they trying to classify us, just like we don't have rights?" she asked, tired after a long day of holding signs at City Hall. "I thank the church, but from here where are we going? We're all trying our hardest."