Cathy Bussewitz / AP Photo

Hawaii considering grass huts for homeless

Hawaii state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland wants to see land set aside to build Native Hawaiian structures for homeless

Hawaii lawmakers are considering a unique solution to the housing crisis: They want to make it possible for people to live in traditional Hawaiian grass huts.

State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland is introducing a bill in the state legislature's upcoming session that would let officials set aside land to build Native Hawaiian thatched homes. She discussed that and other bills designed to alleviate homelessness at a meeting of the Housing and Homeless Task Force on Monday.

"There is an interest in recapturing some of the traditional ways of living among our people here in Hawaii," Chun Oakland said.

Homelessness is a critical issue in Hawaii. In October, Hawaii Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency to deal with the state's homelessness crisis. The declaration was intended help the state speed up the process of building a homeless shelter for families. Hawaii saw a 23 percent increase in its unsheltered homeless population from 2014 to 2015 and a 46 percent increase in the number of unsheltered families. The state has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural practitioner, approached Oakland with the idea floated Monday. Officials creating housing solutions should take into account the culture of the people they're trying to help, including the fact that Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have large extended families, Wong-Kalu said.

"We have a different culture other than what housing will allow," Wong-Kalu said. "When you look at shelters for the houseless, it's all based on the nuclear family, and that's not our culture."

Not everyone at the meeting was immediately on board with the proposal.

"This doesn't make any sense," said Shannon Wood, a co-founder of the Windward Ahupuaa Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smart growth solutions. "This is 2016, not 1616."

Wood asked whether there would be toilets in the huts, and Chun Oakland said the details haven't been fully worked out.

Critics say living in traditional grass huts could pose safety hazards.

Proponents say they don't know of any people in Hawaii currently living in the traditional structures, called "hale," but it is technically legal. They say traditional hale are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than other types of housing.

The Legislature approved a law in 2007 pushing the idea of traditional Hawaiian architecture as part of a package of solutions to the state's housing and homelessness crisis. That bill required each of the state's counties to come up with their own permitting process within a year. But only Maui County came up with a building code, and it's for nonresidential structures.

The Associated Press

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