Housing First: A Funder Boosts a Promising Model to Address Homelessness in Hawaii

Photo: Theodore Trimmer/Shutterstock

Photo: Theodore Trimmer/Shutterstock

When people think of Hawaii, they probably imagine a tropical paradise of warm surf, sandy beaches, and cold Mai Tais. In reality, what they’ll see outside luxurious hotels are homeless people. Hawaii has the highest number of homeless per capita in the nation, nearly 45 for every 10,000, compared to 19 nationally. This dire situation is on the top of voters’ minds and has dominated the attention of local lawmakers. What it hasn’t received much of is attention from private philanthropy—until recently.

Last month, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation donated $3 million to support Kahauiki Village, a community of affordable, long-term housing for homeless families. The $12 million, 13-acre development was designed by a local architect.

The Weinberg Foundation’s funding will kick-start the next phase of the project, which, when completed, will include 153 homes and about 600 residents. The core of the units are emergency shelters built for Japan tsunami victims in 2011 and since refurbished. 

This effort is the latest example of a major grantmaker backing a cross-sector partnership to address homelessness. As we’ve reported, there’s a lot of energy and momentum in this space right now, with many funders optimistic about solutions that focus on creating permanent supportive housing.

A Growing Problem

High housing costs are a key driver of homelessness in Hawaii. The Hawaii real estate firm Locations reports that the median price for single-family homes on Oahu is now $795,000, and for condominiums is $400,000. Rents are similarly high, and many Hawaii families are forced to live with relatives and often work three or four jobs just to scrape by. It’s easy to see how someone could end up homeless in Hawaii.

Kahauiki Village is a public-private partnership that was the vision of businessman/entrepreneur Duane Kurisu, head of the aio Group and aio Foundation. The plantation-style village was built in an urban area, Sand Island, best known for its industrial shipping activity. Kahauiki was constructed by volunteers from business, government, labor unions, the military and the community, who modified modular homes originally used to shelter victims of Japan’s Tōhoku tsunami in 2011. 

When complete, the village will include 153 modular homes and more than 600 residents. Rent is $725 a month for a one-bedroom home and $900 a month for two bedrooms—half the market rate. The community offers classes for residents, links to job opportunities nearby, and a preschool and daycare center that enrolled 20 when it opened in July. Along with more homes, a rec center and garden are planned.


Thus far, most of the money to support homelessness initiatives in Hawaii has come from the government, particularly HUD. Philanthropy has been largely absent—with a few exceptions. In 2014, for example, the Hawaii Community Foundation (HCF) made a $4 million commitment to an initiative called HousingASAP. This three-year capacity-building program used coaching, training and networking to improve the efficacy of the state’s largest shelter providers. Its main goal is to help these nonprofits adapt to the Housing First approach. HousingASAP is funded by 13 of HCF’s largest donors, including some of the state’s most prominent family trusts, as well as the Aloha United Way.

However, few other substantial philanthropic resources have been invested into this issue until now.

An Old Hawaii Supporter 

Harry Weinberg, who was born in 1908 in Galicia (now part of Ukraine), made a fortune in business, transportation and hotels in Baltimore and elsewhere, including Hawaii. Weinberg established his foundation, named after himself and his wife, Jeanette, in 1959. When he died in 1990, his trust was valued at $900 million. Today, the foundation’s endowment stands at about $2 billion, and since 1980, it has given about $2 billion in grants. Weinberg’s foundation gives out 5 percent of its value every year, about $100 million, to nonprofits around the world. Hawaii receives about 10 percent of that sum: Since 1990, more than 700 nonprofits in the state have received a total of $315 million. The foundation maintains an office in Hawaii.

Weinberg’s charity is visible in the 183 buildings named after Harry and Jeanette Weinberg in Hawaii. At least 50 percent of the foundation’s giving must be in the form of capital grants, which is highly unusual for institutional grantmakers—many of which don’t provide such support at all. Weinberg’s embrace of brick-and-mortar projects makes it a valuable ally for social service groups who have often have pressing infrastructure needs.

Only time will tell if the community model of Kahuiki Village can reduce Hawaii’s severe homelessness problem. And though Hawaii may have unique pressures when comes to housing, in many ways, it’s just an extreme version of conditions in other states. Projects like Kahauiki Village could provide useful insights as philanthropy and governments work to get residents off the streets and into secure homes.