They live on beaches, in parks, at bus stops, beneath highway underpasses, and even in airports throughout the tropical paradise of Hawaii. At night, they sleep on sidewalks.
The Hawaiian Islands have one of the highest homeless rates in the U.S., and each year the numbers grow. Last fall, Gov. David Ige issued a state of emergency concerning homelessness.
Pastor Klayton Ko prayed. How should his church, the multisite First Assembly of God in Honolulu, respond to the homeless — especially vulnerable women and children?
Ko says the Holy Spirit provided a single-word response: shelter.
The pastor’s internet search of the word led him to the Juneau, Alaska-based InterShelter, which manufactures temporary, portable affordable housing. Each domed igloo — the company offers them in colors such as tangerine and pink — can be assembled in just three hours by three people with socket wrenches and screwdrivers.
Thus, Ko launched The Shelter, First Assembly’s initiative to provide Christian community, job training, and transitional housing to homeless people.
“Homelessness is a heart issue,” says Ko, who also is superintendent of the AG Hawaii District. “We as believers have been anointed to heal the brokenhearted, and to set free those caught in grips of poverty.”
While government programs can finance physical needs, Ko says, “The church has the spiritual resources to bring healing and hope to the homeless.”
Ko’s vision begins with an agricultural tract the church owns on Oahu, on which the church could place around a dozen long-lasting rustproof fiberglass panel “igloos,” cool inside even in the tropical heat.
From there, the church would lodge the homeless in a “God-based family community where they’re not isolated on the street,” says Daniel Kaneshiro, First Assembly’s facilities pastor and director of the homeless program.
The Shelter aims to train the homeless for employment, Kaneshiro says, adding that plans include building a self-sustaining organic farm, freeing the project from dependence on donations.
Kaneshiro notes that many homeless are employed, but the high cost of living in the Aloha State keeps them without a roof over their head. Monthly rent in metro Honolulu ranges from $1,300 to $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment. Some chronic homeless come from the mainland, attracted by the temperate winter. Others move from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands with few job skills. The government has put up some homeless in converted shipping containers, which are hot and prone to rust in the salty Hawaiian air.
First Assembly always has maintained a homeless outreach, Kaneshiro says. The church’s program includes feeding and busing the homeless to services. Historically, however, there has been no ecumenical movement on social issues in Hawaii.
Last year, First Assembly ordered a single four-person 314-square-foot igloo (12 feet tall, 20 feet in diameter) for $9,500 and at Christmas set it up in the church courtyard. Meanwhile, Ko, Kaneshiro and the rest of the leadership team sought the Lord’s guidance on fitting the structure into a holistic Christ-centered homeless ministry.
The church’s model igloo generated interest and enthusiasm not only at First Assembly, but also from pastors and congregants within other AG churches and beyond. In April, First Assembly went public with The Shelter initiative when Ko shared it with AG pastors during Hawaii’s District Council meeting. Since then, three AG churches and two independent congregations have pledged more than $91,000, in addition to the $100,000 that First Assembly has committed.
As Ko continues to speak to pastors, he expects more churches to adopt an igloo “and possibly launch a Shelter village on their island,” he says. “I am excited because while most pastors and churches have a desire to help the homeless, they have lacked the vehicle.”
NOT SO FAST
Obstacles hinder implementing the vision. Public shelters will accept those still using alcohol and drugs; in contrast, First Assembly isn’t equipped to provide social services for chronic homeless with substance abuse and mental health issues. The church campus itself couldn’t accommodate homeless residents because it’s near a school, which presents liability issues.
Another complication stems from how much control the church is willing to release when working with city and state officials.
“How do we partner with government but, at the same time, not compromise our beliefs?” Kaneshiro asks. “There’s a concern we cannot really create a program that requires someone to go to church or Bible study.”
Yet another holdup is getting required zoning and city permits for the church’s restricted agricultural land. Ko says church leaders have met with top city officials who pledged to find ways to either waive certain rules under the governor’s emergency proclamation or to speed up the normal process, which may take more than two years. With city favor, Ko says, the time may shorten to six months to a year.
Ko has been pleasantly surprised by the interest generated.
“Individuals, pastors, churches, and the mayor and city council [have said they want to] support in whatever ways possible,” he says.
The issue provides opportunity for churches to unite across denominational lines, working together to tackle this humanitarian crisis through the gospel. First Assembly joined the Hawaii’s first faith-based summit on homelessness in March. That opened deeper conversations in subsequent weeks with other church and parachurch leaders.
“It’s the body of Christ coming together with compassion for the least of these,” Kaneshiro says.
“I believe this will give the faith community greater leverage in the future to speak to other issues plaguing our state,” Ko says.
Pictured: Pastor Klayton Ko and one of the igloo shelters