DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Utu Langi works on one of the 18 donated buses that have been converted to temporarily house homeless people. The buses will be outfitted with beds in small partitioned units and driven to areas with people in need of shelter. One finished bus will be unveiled tomorrow at H-5's Walk the Talk, a walk around Oahu to raise awareness of the homeless problem.
Driven to help the homeless
Utu Langi was returning from a trip to feed the homeless when he thought he could do more.
Tomorrow he will unveil his first mobile shelter-bus, a former tour bus that has been gutted and fitted with eight beds, which he plans to drive to areas of need and give the homeless a place to sleep.
"I'm so excited, I cannot wait to run it," he said. "I'm hoping to help a lot of people with this goofy idea."
Langi, director of the nonprofit Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope, or H-5, believes it might be the first time that someone has converted a 40-foot bus into a state homeless shelter. He has overcome several roadblocks and has had an extension on the one-year $500,000 pilot project from December to June 2009.
Despite the delays, Langi, who turns 40 tomorrow, says the need for shelters continues to be great.
"We're seeing new faces now," said Langi, whose organization feeds about 6,000 people around the island every month. "What I see now is more than what I had seen two or three years ago."
Langi, a carpenter by trade, will unveil the bus and its project name tomorrow at the kickoff of his third Walk the Talk event, a 130-mile walk around Oahu. The 10-day walk raises awareness of homeless issues and will bring in money for the bus project and other organizations.
The bus will travel with the group, allowing residents to check it out and share suggestions.
After the walk, Langi hits the streets with two finished buses. Roberts Hawaii donated 19 buses to Langi for the project, and he hopes to have five of them ready as shelters by mid-2008.
The way the project works is, the bus pulls into a location, processes its residents for the night and gets them into contact with service providers. The residents get a meal and a place to sleep. In the morning, the residents check out and the bus drives away.
"It's a one-of-a-kind, first-time solution," said Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, which is administering the state grant-in-aid.
He said the bus project is modeled after Family Promise of Hawaii, a homeless project composed of a network of interfaith organizations where homeless families are hosted by an organization one week and move to another organization the next.
Similarly, Taniguchi expects the success of H-5's project to depend on the community and other private organizations' support.
They will provide a place for the buses to park overnight as well as a restroom, which the buses do not have, he said.
"The idea is also not to burden one community or one organization too long," he said.
Langi, whose organization also runs the state's Next Step shelter in Kakaako, said the smaller group on the buses provides advantages over a larger, fixed shelter: more comfort and better personal service.
And the shelter will reach transient homeless people who are missed by fixed shelters.
Darlene Hein, director of the Waikiki Health Center's Care-A-Van, a homeless outreach program, said service providers need more places to refer people.
"The truth is, there's not a lot of options," she said, adding that Langi's shelter will help make people more stable, especially those struggling to keep a job or dealing with mental health issues, by giving them a place to sleep.
Councilman Todd Apo, who represents Leeward Oahu, said, "I think it (the bus project) can provide some emergency relief that we need right now."