Mixed blessings reported at temporary shelter for post-wildfire homeless people

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Tents went up in early October for Pu’uhonua o Nēnē, a temporary homeless shelter, near Kahului Airport, managed by Project Vision Hawai’i. On Tuesday, a Maui County Council committee heard a status report on the shelter and heard of mixed outcomes for the facility that provides a place to sleep for 120 to 130 people nightly. PC: Project Vision screen grab

It’s been a rocky road for Puʻuhonua o Nēnē, a temporary homeless shelter near Kahului Airport that has provided emergency tented shelter for 120 to 130 people nightly since opening last fall within weeks of the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire disaster.

Blessed Sept. 30, the shelter is for Maui wildfire survivors who were homeless pre-disaster. The shelter with capacity of 150 individuals is on state Department of Transportation land located at the corner of Hāna Highway and Mayor Elmer F. Carvalho Way. The shelter is managed by Project Vision Hawai’i with funding from the state Department of Human Services as well as private and nonprofit donors.

On Tuesday, members of the Maui County Council’s Water Authority, Social Services and Parks Committee, chaired by Council Member Shane Sinenci, heard complaints from former shelter staff about understaffing, poor training and staff burnout. There were also troubling reports of violence among residents, who are allowed to sort out altercations among themselves as a “peer-led community,” as well as drug and alcohol abuse, and a number of deaths.

Some shelter residents also told council members they were grateful for a place to live, for access to regular meals, shelter, healthcare, job training and other services. “It’s a Godsend,” one resident said.

The building of a community of “tiny homes” with proper utilities is expected to come soon to what some have come to call “tent city.” The shelter has bathrooms, showers and a health clinic.


Darrah “Makana” Kauhane, executive director of Project Vision Hawai’i, provided a written response to questions from Council Chair Alice Lee in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to grow a space specifically for our unhoused community over time in a way that hasn’t been done before on Maui,” she said in the letter to Lee. “We recognize the need for an innovative solution to get our most vulnerable individuals off the streets. Despite the many challenges, we are proud to provide aloha, a warm bed, on-site health services daily, three meals a day, work opportunities and a chance to participate in a resident-run community council to give a voice to about 1/3 of Maui’s unsheltered population each night since October 2023.”

Regarding reports of deaths and hospitalizations at the shelter, Kauhane acknowledged that three residents passed away on site. Those were reported to the Maui Police Department and other authorities, she said.

“We also conduct an internal incident report and root cause analysis to grow through heartbreak,” she said. “Our residents and staff are also offered grief support in multiple different forms.”

Kauhane said she could not discuss specific information because of privacy laws, but information is provided to those who are on a need-to-know basis.


During Tuesday’s committee meeting, she said, “safety is our No. 1 priority,” and she added that the shelter has contracted with a security company, installed security cameras and has a neighborhood watch.

PC: Project Vision Hawai’i. Pu’uhonua o Nēnē

Maui Police Department Sgt. Jan Pontanilla told council members she has not personally had problems visiting tent city, on occasion, to provide help and resources, although not to investigate cases. “I do have detectives and patrol officers having a very difficult time trying to get in, trying to investigate a case,” she said.

The officers were responding to a complaint from a resident and were stopped at the gate, she said. Detectives also reported following up on a report of a missing person or an assault, and “they’re also getting denied access to that property. So there is obviously a disconnect.”

Echo Wyche, Project Vision’s director of social services, said police are allowed into the tent shelter to respond to calls from residents, but the complainants take the lead in interacting with responding officers. However, Wyche also said that it’s “pretty standard practice” at emergency shelters not to have police officers on site without a warrant. Otherwise, “people wouldn’t live there,” she said.

Skye Kahoali’i, a former community navigator at the shelter, resigned because of concerns about staff personal safety at the shelter. She said shelter policy was to allow residents involved in physical altercations to “work the problems out themselves,” unless someone was bleeding or unconscious.


Wyche acknowledged there is a “hands-off rule with residents” because the shelter is a “peer-led community, and we want individuals to learn from these experiences.”

According to Kauhane, shelter residents have access to medical care, including a medical director on call 24/7, a psychiatrist who visits once a month, and nurses, psychologists, licensed therapists and acupuncturists on a full-time, daily rotation for residents only, she said.

The shelter facility contracts out services for food, security, mental health support and case managers, she said.

“We are working to provide a better quality of life through greater access to health and social services right on site,” she said. “Over time, as relationships build and trust forms, more and more of our residents are willing to engage in our health and support services provided by us and our partner organizations.”

Violence and substance abuse are not allowed at the shelter, and there’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out system for residents, Kauhane said.

“We talk through every issue before giving out strikes because what is at stake is being back on the streets and that is not our goal to deprive someone of their basic needs,” she said. People who are discharged can come back after a probation period. Police and emergency medical services personnel are called as needed.

The shelter has 30 staff members that rotate into three shifts per day, Kauhane said. “At any given time for this site, there are at least four people working each shift plus oversight by a shelter manager, housing director, social services director and facilities manager,” she said.

Staff members receive training in nationally recognized homeless and harm reduction courses, she said. The training emphasizes “core issues and evidence-based practices that support our population who experience trauma.” Staffers also are required to take occupational safety, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and Narcan trainings, she added. (Narcan, or Naloxone, blocks the effects of opiates on the brain and restore breathing, reversing an opioid overdose.)

Other training topics include trauma-informed care, crisis intervention, motivational interviewing, domestic violence and sex trafficking and mental health first aid. 

Hiring staff has been challenging “because this is hard work, and there are many similar service organizations that are also filling positions,” Kauhane said. “We feel the effects of workforce shortages, especially since the fires. Another hardship is in finding independent housing for our residents to graduate to due to the affordable housing shortage on Maui. More program and housing resources are needed across Maui to support next steps for our residents.”

The temporary site was erected under an emergency proclamation less than two weeks after the Lahaina fires. Kauhane said the shelter grounds are still gravel, so it is not completely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, “this is a temporary solution until construction of the permanent site can be completed by the state,” she said.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, she asked council members to keep in mind that the shelter was built as an “immediate and temporary response to the fire” so that survivors had a place to go.

“We were given permission to open our doors to the greater unsheltered population and those in need,” she said. “We are proud to say that most of those that are on the streets have been through our doors, even if just for a short time.”

According to a recent Homeless Point in Time Count for 2024, the overall number of homeless people on Maui was 654 — 285 unsheltered and 369 sheltered.

The life expectancy of a homeless person is 53 years old, about 30 years less than the general population, according to Project Vision. The unsheltered have higher rates of mental illness, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately higher in the homeless population than other ethnic groups.

Brian Perry
Brian Perry worked as a staff writer and editor at The Maui News from 1990 to 2018. Before that, he was a reporter at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. From 2019 to 2022, he was director of communications in the Office of the Mayor.
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