A tent city to house the homeless would be built on five acres of city and county land beside Wai'anae Boat Harbor under a plan created by a grassroots coalition trying to find a solution to one of the state's most serious housing problems.
But Camp Hope, as the facility would be called, is being widely criticized by residents who say it would be a magnet for the homeless from around the island.
"We do not want to be known as the homeless capital of Hawai'i," said one resident.
"How are you going to keep this from becoming a homeless dumping ground?" wondered another.
Homelessness has exploded on the Leeward Coast in recent months, and surveys indicate the area now has 20 percent of the approximately 6,500 homeless on O'ahu. The number of homeless people on the Wai'anae Coast includes more than 300 people under age 16, according to local service providers.
Semi-permanent tents are a common sight along the coast's beaches and parks.
With no government solution on the horizon, and a growing sense of urgency from increasing strain on area social services, a group called Wai'anae CAR (Community Area of Responsibility) spent nearly a year hammering out the Camp Hope plan.
The group is made up primarily of residents, service providers and homeless people working in partnership with representatives from the city and Police Department and area legislators.
But the ferocity of criticism that greeted the idea when it was unveiled at a public meeting last week underscored the emotional sensitivity of the issue and the difficulty of tackling what has become an intractable problem in Hawai'i.
Advocates acknowledge the plan isn't perfect.
The project has yet to find financing, and many hurdles remain, said Tom Caldwell, coalition chairman. No date for completion has been established, and the coalition has not been granted permission to use the land in question.
But Caldwell and the others are convinced the community needs to take action.
"This is not a great solution," Caldwell said. "It's a solution that came from the hearts and minds of people who care and are trying to do something about the problem."
The proposed location is an undeveloped section of city and county land between the Wai'anae Boat Harbor and Wai'anae High School. Flanked by trees on two sides and a drainage ditch on another, the site is not visible from Farrington Highway or any area homes.
Caldwell said the proposed "temporary homeless transitional living center" would be a "100-percent clean and sober facility" that would house some 35 families totaling around 100 individuals.
Residents would be screened and evaluated in advance as people who can and want to be helped by professionals and volunteers assigned to manage individual cases.
The chronically homeless, and those with mental, drug or alcohol problems that prevent them from moving back into the mainstream, would not be admitted, he said. No resident would be allowed to remain more than a year, and most would be moved out earlier.
"Case managers will monitor the progress of the residents," Caldwell said. "There will be a 24-hour staff at the facility."
He said the concept ó which the coalition does not describe as a "tent city," feeling it is pejorative ó is the best the group came up with after months of hashing out the problem.
Lynn Maunakea, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which operates a Honolulu shelter providing temporary housing to some 2,000 homeless annually, said she is not surprised by the reaction in Wai'anae.
"There's this barrier that exists, and people have some kind of stereotype about who the homeless are," she said. "People see someone who fits the stereotype, and they jump to a conclusion and they can't get past it. So they think that anything you've cooked up is either crazy, or they sure don't want it anywhere near them because it's going to bring in negative elements."
Patty Teruya, a member of the Wai'anae CAR board of directors, admits to sharing some of that perspective before she got involved.
"I frankly thought the answer was enforcement," she said. "But since I've worked with homeless people on this, I've come to a different way of thinking. I believe much of the problem is that the government has let these people down."
Hundreds of fliers and leaflets urging residents to voice their opposition to the plan were distributed before last week's informational meeting, and the gathering of more than 200 people was contentious.
Many of the complaints focused on an increase in crime and drugs in the area and concerns about the effect they might have on the neighborhood's three public schools.
But the mood of the meeting began to change after several homeless people stood to have their say.
"Who are you to judge?" Jordan Akau asked those who criticized the plan.
"We're not all drug dealers," added his wife, Margaret Akau. "We're not bad."
Gemini Burke, regional outreach coordinator for the United States Veterans Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to help homeless veterans, told the gathering that those who believe the problem will go away by ignoring it are in for a rude awakening. Like others who deal with the issue daily, Burke said the number of homeless is escalating rapidly.
"We've got to find solutions," he told the gathering.
HPD Maj. Greg Lefcourt said his department became involved with the coalition because officers found themselves chasing the same homeless offenders from one location to another.
In the process of enforcing laws to evict the homeless from beaches and parks, he said, police frequently severed ties that had been established with service providers struggling to resolve the problem ó which only made matters worse.
If a workable solution were to be found, HPD felt it would have to come from the community.
Wai'anae Boat Harbor master William Aila had a message for those who insist they don't want the homeless next to the harbor.
"They're already there," he said.
Aila admitted he has reservations about Camp Hope ó he's not convinced the rules can be enforced. But he commended Wai-'anae CAR for wrestling with an issue others won't touch.
For months, Aila said he has had repeated run-ins with some of the four to five dozen homeless people living in the adjacent brush. They are unsupervised and volatile, he said. He has been attacked, and harbor property has been vandalized and stolen.
"If this program can help me get rid of those people and replace them with responsible people who want to get ahead, then I'm willing to give it a try," he said.