ByMadeleine Somerville

Oct 20, 2015
Mobile homeless shelter rendering

Sometimes, I am convinced that creativity will save the world. I mean I’m intelligent, but I lack that innovative eye – the one that can look at old drawers and see a bookcase, or think to make a bird feeder out of a chipped teacup.

As I discovered while researching this story, however, my theory about creativity saving us might not be too far off the mark, at least for homeless residents of Hawaii. The creative new approach to homeless housing issues that local government is taking is innovative, compassionate, and eco-friendly, too. And it all comes down to envisioning another use for the darling of the green movement, public transportation.

Hawaii was having trouble accommodating its large numbers of homeless citizens. Despite its tropical climate and picturesque views, some form of shelter is still essential to escape the heat and the elements and to have a safe place to sleep, shower, and eat.

Homeless man in Hawaii
Image source.

While trying to find a solution to this issue, government officials stumbled upon a project called Lava Mae that had been rolled out in San Fransisco. This project refurbished old city buses and transformed them into portable shower units for the homeless. After digging around a bit, sure enough, Honolulu had 70 buses that were slated to come off the road.

Don’t you love it when things just come together like this?

Local architects (including Group 70 International) have volunteered their services for repurposing these old buses into portable homeless shelters – some featuring up to 8 beds, others housing hygiene units complete with showers. Jun Yang, Honolulu’s executive director of the office of housing, said that it quickly became apparent that the city had found the perfect solution, “It became a workable option for homeless people who otherwise would have been on the street,” he said. “It was a lower-barrier option for some of the homeless that the shelter could no longer provide services for.”

The buses will still be fully functional and able to be driven from site to site, providing an incredibly accessible alternative to the standard homeless shelter, and Yang envisions the buses being used primarily in areas like Kakkako, a neighborhood close to downtown Waikiki, where an informal homeless camp has developed in recent years. Being able to bring the shelter to the people, rather than the other way around, allows the organization to avoid the “not in my backyard” mentality that often emerges when trying to construct new, permanent shelters.

Collaborative solutions like this are so inspiring. Without these innovative approaching to repurposing, these buses would have been driven into the ground and then stripped for parts, crushed and the metal processed. Now, their structures will become havens instead, temporary homes for those who lack them.

It’s “wheels on the bus” meets “home sweet home.” Aloha!

Feature image courtesy of Group 70 International

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.