Honolulu, squeaky-clean tropical tourist trap and ungodly expensive place to live, has a homelessness problem. Or, more accurately, Honolulu has a problem with homelessness.

Over the past several years, the Hawaiian metropolis has seen a dramatic rise — as much as 32 percent, according to the New York Times — in the number of people living on city streets. Some are transient “snowbirds” from the rainy Pacific Northwest; some are natives struggling with the city’s exorbitant cost of living; some simply have no where else to go.

Regardless of the circumstances that have put these individuals on the street, the reaction of Honolulu officials to their increased presence has been, well, largely combative.

Eschewing a more benevolent approach that's been embraced by other cities, Honolulu has all but declared all-out war on the homeless with highly controversial campaigns — crackdowns, really — that aim to sweep the city’s homeless population under the proverbial rug (or completely off the island of Oahu) instead of help individuals living on the street transition into more secure living situations. In a city when enforcement outweighs housing, there will be no sitting, standing, lying down or loitering for Honolulu’s homeless, particularly those who have gravitated toward tourist-heavy Waikiki and Chinatown. There will be no existing

While Honolulu officials are very much within their rights to be concerned about the economic impact that a surging homeless population can have on their island paradise’s well-oiled tourism machine, the approach to improving the situation has been largely devoid of even the slightest trace of compassion.

A new initiative from Honolulu-based architecture firm Group 70 International, however, is overflowing with compassion — with a wee bit of irony thrown in for good measure. Working with Jun Yang, executive director of the Honolulu Office of Housing, Group 70 International’s Ma Ry Kim is heading up the effort to transform a quintet of decommissioned city buses, previously used to shuttle tourists around town, into a fleet of roving shelters where those living on the streets can turn to when in need of a hot shower, a decent meal or, most importantly, a safe place to hunker down for the night.

Just a few years ago, city buses — specifically city bus stops — and Honolulu’s homeless population weren’t exactly simpatico. In 2011, an experimental effort to dissuade homeless people from camping out at bus stops backfired when it was discovered that new “leaning” benches installed to replace conventional bus stop benches repelled everyone, particularly elderly bus patrons.

While Honolulu’s homeless and bus shelters are still on shaky terms, in the near future the buses themselves could be considered places of refuge, sanctuary in their post-service afterlives.

Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

“The idea is to convert them into living, sleeping, showering, recreational facilities," elaborates Kim to Hawaii News Now. “The entire design is based on the premise that you could walk in to a hardware store, buy everything you need in one go and build everything with no trade skills.”

Kim goes on to explain that instead of each bus being converted into a self-contained, RV-esque shelter-on-wheels, each will serve a specific purpose. “We're fitting some out to be bathrooms and showers, we're fitting some out to be sleeping areas, and the design completely folds away like a little Japanese tatami mat." 

Materials for the buses-turned-shelters will be largely donated. At this point,  some important logistics still need to be ironed out including who exactly will operate the fleet. It's also unclear where the buses will be deployed.

The inspiration for the initiative came from the work of San Francisco-based nonprofit Lava Mae, which, in 2014, converted one of that city’s old MUNI buses into a mobile bathroom outfitted with sinks, showers and commodes as part of a pilot program “Delivering Dignity … One Shower at a Time.”

Kim expects that two of the buses will be fully converted and ready to hit the streets this summer while the entire fleet of five will be in operation by the year’s end.

Along with a slew of other service-based initiatives that aim to help, not stigmatize, the retired bus-turned-shelter scheme is improving Honolulu’s once generally awful approach to dealing with homelessness one life-bettering step at a time.

Via [Huffington Post]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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