Thursday, May 10, 2012

Facing Hunger in Hawaii

Waikiki Beach
One of the most memorable scenes from our visit to Honolulu, Hawaii is this:  Stand on the beach across the street from Kapiolani Park.  Look west – you see an iconic view of paradise – Deep blue Pacific Ocean, the sands of Waikiki Beach, opulent resort hotels, and the skyline of modern Honolulu.   Now turn around to the park and there you see a picnic table covered with a bright flowered tablecloth and a few people laying out food for a small gathering of … homeless folks.

Yes.  Hawaii has its share of people living in poverty (10.4%) and people experiencing food insecurity (14%).  Rates of homelessness are approximately twice the national average, ranking Hawaii as the state with the 3rd highest rate of homelessness.  In 2011, approximately 4,234 homeless people were counted on the island of Oahu alone; 1,322 of them were unsheltered.  Other estimates we heard during our visit were much higher. 

Ben talking with Betsy
One factor leading to high homelessness is the extremely high cost of living in Hawaii. In Honolulu, for example, rents are more than double the national average, making it more expensive to live here than anywhere else in the US except New York City.

How did we come to be attending a “homeless feed” in Honolulu?  We had worked earlier at the Hawaii Foodbank with fellow volunteer, Ben Timmerman, who happens to be homeless.  He graciously invited us to join him.  Over the course of the few days we spent in Hawaii, we were privileged to get to know Ben and also to talk with Klara and others about their lives on the street in Honolulu.  We heard about the enormous difficulties of being homeless, for example:
  • finding a safe place to sleep (and keeping it to yourself so others or the police don’t interfere).
  • being assaulted, insulted, mistrusted, discriminated against, and treated unfairly in many ways.  For example, we heard a personal story of waking up in the night to someone trying to burn him.
  • having your few belongings stolen or scattered in different locations where friends are willing to store them. 
  • being stereotyped as dirty, criminal, or dangerous (some may be, but the people we met were none of these).
  • being stereotyped as mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol (again, some may be, but the people we met were neither of these, though they did bear the scars of past wrongs either to them or by them).
Klara talking with Carolyn
We heard about long, slow slides into homelessness after years and years of working at jobs such as waiter, bus driver, taxi driver, and substitute teacher.  We also heard about causes such as drug abuse, prison, domestic abuse, job loss, inability to pay escalating rent, and mistreatment by agencies such as the VA.  We heard about benefits such as SSI and SNAP that helped for part of the month, but were insufficient to cover the rent for even a single room.  We heard frustration, anger, pain, loneliness, and deep longing for understanding, justice, and basic human touch. 

The people we met were certainly not lazy. They were busy with all the processes they had to go through for benefit or job applications, all the lines they had to stand in for meals or housing, and all the moving around they needed to do – all while trying to find a way to get into their own housing.  Some were employed or held volunteer jobs at the programs we visited.  Some attended church and sang in the choir.  None just sat around.

In talking with these homeless folks, we also heard intelligence, wit, humor, love of music, political opinion, great math skills, and appreciation of the beauty and history around them.  We heard about normal childhoods and continuing close family ties.  We heard courtesy and caring and love.  We heard dreams for the future from “having a home of my own” to “being able to complete my college degree in computer science.”  In short, we heard things you might hear from any friend.
First United Methodist Church of Honolulu
Rev. Linita Moa and Rev. Amy Wake

To learn more about how hungry and homeless folks are being helped in Hawaii, we visited the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu

This congregation began in 1855, when Hawaii was still a monarchy and the church’s presence required a Royal Charter from King Kamehameha IV.  Today about 50% of the congregation is part of an immigrant community from Tonga, a Pacific island nation near Fiji.

Co-pastors Rev. Amy Wake and Rev. Linita Moa conduct services in both English and Tongan in a large sanctuary open on two sides to the weather and sounds of Hawaii, a symbol that “the world is our parish.”   We were warmly welcomed and even participated in a Tongan worship service.
Cece preparing for Pancakes and Praise
Every Sunday at 8:00 AM, First UMC also offers a devotional service called “Pancakes and Praise,” a tradition begun by Utu Langi as part of his work with hungry people in Honolulu.  Many homeless people come to participate in the praise service and to enjoy the pancakes afterward.  We worked with Samiana Langi, Cece, and other volunteers to serve coffee, pancakes, and bacon to about 100 people, and that provided us with a great chance to talk with some of the people who attended.

First UMC has a long history of social services to the community, including serving meals to soldiers during WWII and starting a counseling center, various schools, and senior housing and meals programs. 

The two programs we specifically wanted to learn about are H-5 (which stands for “Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope”) and First UMC Foodbank. These two programs provide some really interesting comparisons.  They’re alike in that each was born at the church under the strong visionary leadership of a member of the congregation.  Each is tuned to serve the needs of hungry and homeless Hawaiians with care and compassion.  And each includes some of the program participants in the ranks of their employees and volunteers.  But the contrasts are many. 

First UMC Hawaii Foodbank volunteer Dick Chadwick
First the foodbank.  The First United Methodist Church Honolulu Foodbank  (which in most parts of the country would be called a “food pantry”) started as a tiny closet serving a few families each week.  But that was before about 1980, when the need started growing and Lissi Chadwick took it over.  Lissi was not in town when we visited, so we learned about the foodbank from another knowledgeable volunteer, Lissi’s husband, Dick Chadwick, who is also Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii.

Over the years, the foodbank has steadily grown to serve more people, to occupy a larger space in the church building, and to fine-tune its operations to best meet the needs of hungry Hawaiians.  It is now open two hours a day, 5 days a week.  After being in operation for over 30 years, its database contains names of over 7200 households, between 400 and 500 of which receive groceries in any given month. Households (here called “guests”) are only allowed to come once every 3 months because the need was outstripping the foodbank’s ability to provide food, space, and volunteers.  Guests are given a list of other nearby pantries and feeding programs in case they need additional resources. 
Vera explaining the choice system at First UMC Hawaii Foodbank

The First UMC foodbank  uses a hybrid model for supplying food (partly pre-packed and partly choice).  Volunteers prepare bags of food tailored to families, single folks, or those without cooking facilities.  Guests can then choose additional items according to their tastes.

We went with Dick Chadwick & Ben Timmerman on their weekly trip to the Hawaii Foodbank.  We sorted through bins and shelves of donated food to find items that Lissi needed to restock the shelves, giving preference to healthy items that Dick and Ben knew their guests liked.  Before loading the groceries into the cars, we weighed the food, so the church could pay the $.18/pound handling fee. 

We returned to the church with two cars FULL of food.  Ben stored some of the shelf-stable items in a small closet in the basement, while the perishable foods and other shelf-stable items we loaded onto carts and hauled in a tiny elevator up to the second floor foodbank.  There, we added the new groceries to the stock and observed the foodbank in operation. 

This food pantry is entirely run by about 18 volunteers, who Lissi seems to keep very well motivated and organized.  Careful and complete instructions on how to fill the bags of groceries were posted.  We saw volunteers stocking shelves, filling bags for guests, and dividing up fresh broccoli and other products into smaller containers.  A volunteer receptionist took registrations, handed out bags of food, and helped guests choose their extra items. The guests seemed very grateful for the food assistance, especially the little boy whose mother assigned him the job of carrying home the box of cereal for the next morning’s breakfast.
H-5's Utu and Samiana Langi

Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope is another program bearing the hallmarks of a strong leader and a faithful mission to the hungry of Honolulu.  H-5, and its Executive Director Utu Langi, are a story of transformation.

If you met Utu teaching Sunday School at First UMC Honolulu or offering devotions at Pancakes and Praise, you’d think that this is one dedicated and caring Christian.  If you met Utu and his wife Samiana (H-5 Programs Coordinator) at the office, you’d find them to be passionate advocates for Hawaii’s hungry and homeless.  But you might not guess that Utu’s younger life was very different. 

After growing up in Tonga, Utu moved to San Francisco and then Hawaii, spent time on the street and in jail, got involved in dealing drugs, and was arrested.  Facing a 45-year prison sentence that was thrown out on a technicality, Utu decided to turn his life around.  He went to school and became a carpenter.  One night in 1997 on his way home from work, he happened to see a man sleeping on a bench.  He stopped to cover him with the blanket he had in the back of his truck.  Thus started his ministry to the homeless. 

Since then, H-5 has evolved through many stages as Utu has designed more and better ways of being responsive to the needs of the homeless.  At first it was more blankets donated by people in the church, then it was providing food to thousands of homeless people in parks all over the island of Oahu.  Then, when the people living in one of the parks in Honolulu faced eviction with no other place to go, he stood by them as they marched to Honolulu Hale, the seat of both the city and county governments.  That activism eventually led the state to open a new homeless shelter called Next Step in 2006.  Utu and H-5 (by now a separate 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization) were hired to manage it. 

Accommodations in an Evans Project shelter
But H-5 continues to evolve.  They no longer provide blankets and food to homeless people in the parks, having come to believe that it is more helpful to get people into shelters where they can receive more of the services they need.  And they no longer manage the Next Step shelter, which transitioned in 2011 to being managed by the Waikiki Health Center.

So what are H-5 and its dedicated staff of about a dozen people doing now?  In addition to a full set of referral services and assisting clients with the paperwork involved in getting benefits, they’re providing ever more innovative services like the Evening Angels Bus Shelter (shortened to the “Evans Project”). 

H-5 now believes that small shelters are healthier and more adapted to the needs of homeless people, so Utu got tour companies to donate retired busses, which he then had outfitted as shelters.  One bus (with seats removed) can easily sleep 8 single homeless people, single mothers and children, or families, with storage for personal belongings in the locked luggage compartments below.  The current busses are parked in a lot near the Next Step shelter, where residents can go for showers, laundry, and dinners.  Also on the lot are portable rest rooms and two canopies covering cooking and lounging areas.  Currently 19 adults and 5 children live at the Evans Project , and in the short (under 2 years) history of the project about 200 people have benefited from shelter there.  Residents seem to enjoy living there, and one couple even named their baby Evans!   
Utu with baby Evans and her mom

Shelter residents often must cope with a lack of transportation, an issue that is particularly acute for residents at the shelters located in the Kalaeloa area (site of a former Naval Air Station west of Honolulu).  H-5 assists by operating a shuttle bus service from the shelters to the main city of Kapolei.

But Utu is not done with just providing shelter and transportation.  In order to break the cycle of homelessness, he’s begun a program called H.O.P.E., which stands for “Hands-On Program & Education.” H.O.P.E. offers workshops to residents of Evans Project and contracts with parks and other organizations to pick up trash and provide janitorial services, thus providing jobs to shelter residents.  We heard about even more ideas for services that the shelter residents could provide, as well as possible start-up businesses.  

Utu continues his advocacy on behalf of Hawaii’s homeless, and his quick wit and heart-felt experience make him tough to counter.  He told us a story that the Board of Health once wanted to shut down one of his homeless feeding programs “in order to protect their health.”  Utu said, “Every day I see people feeding themselves from dumpsters.  I don’t see you telling them it’s not good for them.”  Or when some church members were unhappy about homeless folks at the church and proposed a rule that there could be no sleeping on church property, he replied, “Have you ever looked around during a sermon?” 

The First UMC Foodbank and H-5 are very different programs in history, style, and services.  Nevertheless, what we find important and inspiring is how well each is tuned to best meet the needs they see.  Whether they continue on for 30+ years of growth and fine-tuning or they change more radically to attack problems closer and closer to their root causes, programs like these, together with their donors, volunteers, employees, and leaders, play vital roles in addressing the problem of hunger in America.


  1. It is our hope that food pantries across Hawaii and across America will register with, a national non-profit that uses the internet to connect gardeners and growers with excess harvest to share with local food pantries. Neighbors can nourish hungry neighbors with fresh healthy produce. is connecting the dots to create an ongoing sustainable supply of locally grown food empowering individuals to fight hunger in their own backyards. Please visit to learn more and share with food pantries and encourage them to register. (It's free!)

  2. I am thrilled to see the result of your observation after what you have seen/listened to from all us out here in the middle of the Pacific...and while I have lots more to read yet on your site...I am additionally thrilled to see that you appear to embrace the standard of the mission I have established with the publishing effort of my blog...

    ...i.e., to present an alternative perspective of the culture of the which I add this closing caveat.

    My publishing effort there is greatly inhibited by the demands of my homelessness. Thus I am very unsatisfied with a lot of my effort there...except the 11 posts I made in November 2009 beginning with...

    ...documenting the 5th annual "Walk the Talk" that until this past November was a 10-day circle-island walk by and for the homeless culture as an effort to bring an awareness to the public...the 'alternative perspective' I refer to...and hope to inspire donations to the H5 agency in it's effort to both feed the media this '...perspective' ...and food to the homeless.

    I look forward to what I will learn from you as you continue to confront "Facing Hunger..." in the other 49.

  3. I've only read the Hunger Games and I haven't seen the Battle Royal, so of course my answer on which is better is the Hunger Games. (I'll probably read Battle Royal as soon as I can find the book.) I've heard that what Suzanne Collins wrote in the Hunger Games is just a rip off of Battle Royal. I'm just wondering how it's a rip off, besides the whole 'placing kids in an arena and making them kill each other' sort of thing.

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