It Takes A Village
In creating a plantation-style community to shelter many of Hawai‘i’s homeless families, members of the Kahauiki Village are demonstrating what’s possible when good people come together for a noble cause, and why they’re worthy to be honored by The Salvation Army at its 2019 Army of Hope Gala.
When Mel Kaneshige decided to call it a career as Outrigger Enterprises Group’s executive vice president of real estate and development several years ago, he figured that would be it – no more long days, no more business commitments. In other words: Hello, Retirementville!
Of course, it wouldn’t be long before an old friend would come calling, inquiring if Kaneshige would lend his talents toward building a village for the homeless. Initially, the idea barely moved the needle.
“I knew nothing about homelessness; I didn’t want to know anything about homelessness,” Kaneshige confesses. “Plus, I liked being retired.”
Still, his longtime friendship with aio founder and businessman Duane Kurisu meant the world to him. So instead of politely declining the offer, he probed further into the matter.
“I asked Duane why he would ever want to do such a project, and he told me that he was tired of going to meetings and listening to people just talk about the homeless situation. He wanted to actually do something about it,” recalls Kaneshige.
Inspired by Kurisu’s honesty and altruistic desires, Kaneshige chose to come out of retirement. Before long, other prominent businessmen began embracing Kurisu’s vision and rallying to the cause as well. Together, the members formed a development team whose only goal was to create a better life for a portion of Hawai‘i’s homeless community – and do it all free of charge.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who wanted to give back,” explains Lloyd Sueda, the group’s architect and the president of Sueda & Associates. “Obviously, this wasn’t something any of us had to do, but it was a passion of ours and it came from the heart.”
Today, the team’s work is reflected in the still-under-construction Kahauiki Village, a $22-plus million plantation-style community designed to house more than 600 homeless adults and children. Situated on an 11.3-acre site (formerly state land now leased by the city to Kurisu’s aio Foundation at $1 a year), Kahauiki is located next to Ke‘ehi Lagoon State Park. Other areas looking to implement housing facilities should consider something like steel buildings in a similar formation as they are easy to erect.
The village’s first 30 units (recycled modular homes used by Japanese families as emergency shelters following the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku) opened its doors to residents in January 2018. Construction to the remaining 114 units (or 57 duplexes) is projected to wrap up in February 2020.
For Kaneshige, dedicating the last few years of his life to such a noble cause has been both a mind-opening and heart-warming experience.
“Early on, we realized we had a chance to make a meaningful dent in the homeless issue,” says the group’s project developer and spokesman. “But the best part has been seeing it happen.
“When the first homes opened, I remember talking to this one woman, who was so grateful to have a place of her own. She told me, ‘Now I can tell my kids where they’re going to sleep tonight,’ and when she said that, well … I just started crying.
“When things like that happen, it just makes it all worthwhile.”
Ever since the earliest Salvationists landed on Hawai‘i’s shores in 1894, The Salvation Army (TSA) has pursued worthwhile causes through its network of social services and religious programs. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of islanders have benefitted from its many services, which include day care, shelters for battered women and children, disaster relief, career counseling and vocational training.
In addition, the social service agency has made it a point to annually salute partners who make a positive impact in the community. Fittingly, TSA has chosen to honor members of the Kahauiki Village development team at its 2019 Army of Hope Gala, scheduled for Saturday, April 27, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., at the Family Treatment Services facility (845 22nd Ave. in Kaimukī).
Aside from Kurisu, Kaneshige and Sueda, team members who will be recognized are: Gordan Furutani, former head of the State Land Use Commission and the federal Housing and Urban Development’s Honolulu office; John Dean, former chairman and CEO of Central Pacific Bank; Scott Kuioka, chief investment officer at Island Insurance; Russell Yamamoto, president of RMY Construction; Randy Hiraki, president of Commercial Plumbing; Dexter Kubota, principal of Bowers + Kubota Consulting; and Joel Yuen, president of In-Synergy Engineering.
Funds raised at the gala will specifically support TSA’s Pathway of Hope initiative, which provides individuals with housing and job opportunities in an effort to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, homelessness and drug addiction.
“We want to recognize the efforts of those who made Kahauiki happen and honor the courage it took in bringing so many people together,” says Anna Stone, director of Pathway of Hope. “Hopefully, (this project) encourages more people to be like Duane Kurisu and his team in helping others to get back on their feet.”
Perhaps few people are as appreciative of landing on their own feet again as Francine Alvarez-Lopez. One of Kahauiki Village’s first residents, Alvarez-Lopez’s life has been nothing short of a hellish drug-induced ride – for every time she appeared to be on the road to recovery, she would veer off in a direction that would lead her straight back to meth and marijuana purgatory.
Born in Oakland, California, and raised in Oregon, Alvarez-Lopez began experimenting with drugs at a young age. By the time she turned 17, she was only “attending school to sell dope.” The following year, she dropped out after becoming pregnant with her first child. From that point, things went steadily downhill for her – domestic abuse at the hands of her child’s father, constant warnings from Child Protective Services – before she packed her things and bolted for Hawai‘i, where she hoped for a fresh start by living with her mom.
Initially, the new surroundings were good to her. She completed culinary arts training at Hawai‘i Jobs Corps Center and landed a chef’s job at a Windward O‘ahu eatery. But old demons die hard, and she soon found herself pregnant again and caught up in that vicious cycle of drug addiction and domestic violence.
In 2012, poor life decisions left her at Waimānalo Beach Park, strung out and homeless.
“Meth became my No. 1 priority over my children and their safety, over myself, everything,” recalls Alvarez-Lopez, who lived in a tent at the park for several years. “I knew I had to change, and I’d pray every day and night for it to happen. But I was so conflicted as to what was happening with me. I’d have the Bible in one hand and a pipe in the other.”
After she gave birth to her third child, a CPS worker showed up at the medical center and informed Alvarez-Lopez that her newborn would not be going home with her. Instead, a cousin who had previously taken temporary custody of Alvarez-Lopez’s first two children would be caring for the newborn as well.
By then, Alvarez-Lopez was in a free fall and about to hit rock bottom. With nowhere else to turn, she reached out for help. And there to catch her was The Salvation Army.
“I want my children back,” she recalls telling agency workers. “I want my life back.”
Alvarez-Lopez found relief in TSA’s continuum of care offered to women battling alcohol and drug addiction. After spending five months at Women’s Way, a residential and outpatient treatment program, she ultimately landed at Ke Ola Pono, a transitional housing project in Mānoa for women who’ve successfully completed TSA’s treatment program. While there, Pathway of Hope stepped in and gave Alvarez-Lopez and several other women from the program a chance to apply for residency at Kahauiki Village.
“Our goal is to get these women places to live, present them with choices for employment, and guide them to become self-sufficient – all while working to keep their families intact,” explains Stone. “Then, the last step is to surround them with a new circle of friends.”
This week marks 15 months since Alvarez-Lopez moved into her one-bedroom unit, and just over three years and three months since she’s been free of drugs. Those triumphs have come along with other victories, including her maintaining a full-time job as head chef of a Waikīkī restaurant, and working side by side with other Kahauiki Village residents in making improvements to the community.
But her most important achievement is having her two youngest children – Kaleo, 8, and Oriette, 3 – back in her custody.
“Since she was born, my daughter has been perfectly healthy. Her skin, her eyes, her bubbly personality … I thank God so much for covering that aspect of my life. To think there are families out there who have never done drugs but are dealing with children who have disabilities, and there I was, a mother who had given birth to a meth-addicted baby … and she comes out absolutely perfect,” notes Alvarez-Lopez.
“To me, I take that as a sign from God telling me, ‘This is my forgiveness to you. You have a chance to make this right with yourself, with your family, with your friends, with your community and everyone around you, and turn your life around.'”
Thanks to TSA, its Pathway of Hope initiative and members of the Kahauiki Village development team, Alvarez-Lopez’s future is looking brighter. And when her oldest son, Kash, 16, returns home this summer from foster care, the village will have an opportunity to celebrate a complete family reunion.
“I’ve been hugely blessed,” says Alvarez-Lopez. “Salvation Army helped save my life.”