Houseless in Kauai

Written for The Garden Island Newspaper September 26, 2015.

Brett has been living in a tent between Walmart and Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue, Kauai for four or five months.

The eight-person tent is tucked away in the forest-like growth with a tarp stretched between the trees above to create a lanai. At the edge of the lanai is a wicker lounge chair where his pet chicken sometimes sleeps.

But he won’t be living there anymore.

Brett and the other homeless residents have to move because the owners of the property are clearing the land. All of the saplings and undergrowth are being shredded and only a few large trees will be left by the time the project is over.

“They told us we had two or three weeks to leave,” Brett, who didn’t want to give his last name, told The Garden Island. “I don’t know where I’m going to go. It’s a shame, though, because this is such a beautiful forest.”

The number of homeless people living in the forest fluctuates, Brett said, between only himself and about 15 to 20 people. It is spread out, and each person makes a space for themselves. Outside of Brett’s tent, for instance, he’s hung wooden carvings in the trees and made a marker at the entrance with an upside-down paper cup tied to a stick.

It’s also exclusive.

“You don’t just bring anybody here,” Brett said. “That’s how we do it. Like, only once in a while I’ll help someone out and bring them here to stay for a while.”

It’s a winding path, barely visible from the road, that leads into the tent city, and the forest is so thick, it’s impossible to see how many residents there actually are. From Brett’s tent, there are only two other tents within eyesight.

“At night, you can see lights in the forest, and you can hear them, so you know that there are people out there,” Brett said. “You don’t see them, though, ever.”

Brett said he’s upset that he’s losing the home he spent the past four months making for himself

“We’re not all drug addicts out here,” Brett said. “Some of us are just trying to get back on our feet and we made these homes for ourselves because that’s all we have and we want a place to sleep at night.”

Brett explained that most of the homeless people he knows in tent city, and on the island, are good people who are just having problems with debt or other things and they can’t make ends meet. He said those who end up doing drugs do so out of desperation.

“You know, they get all depressed because they don’t even have a roof over their head and think, ‘What the hell, I’ll do some of those drugs,’” Brett said. “Not all of us are like that, though. Some of us, we take care of ourselves and we really liked living here. It’s a shame.”

According to The Kauai County Real Property Assessment Division’s website, the owner of the property is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, whose office is in Honolulu. Messages left for the foundation weren’t immediately returned on Friday.

The residents of the tent city have all spent time making their tent homes and Brett said they had plans to make it even better to live in the community.
“We were just about to plant a little garden,” Brett said.

Brett said he’s on a waiting list for a low-income housing option, but he’s not optimistic he’ll get the place.

“Really what they need to
do is open up all of these vacant office buildings and put down some mats,” Brett said. “Then charge by the night or the week, or whatever, and that’s all we need. There’s plenty of empty space in buildings around here.”

He doesn’t have that option, though, and now that he’s gotten notice to leave the forest, he’s trying to decide the next move. While he’s thinking, Brett is slowly cleaning the empty bottles, cardboard and other debris in the area.

“I want to get this place clean before I leave and I’ve told all the others here that they need to do the same thing,” Brett said. “I don’t like all of it here and I think of it as my rent — like cleaning is my karma.”

He suspects his new place will look similar to the one he’s cleaning and packing up.

“I’m going to have to find another forest somewhere, where it’s quiet and out of the way,” Brett said. “But I’m going to have to figure out what to do with my chicken. She can’t come with me.”

Photo taken for The Garden Island Newspaper in September 2015. 

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