For many, living on the beaches of Hawaii seems like a dream come true. Watching sunsets with the sound of gently crashing waves lulling them to sleep couldn’t be any more ideal, but for the homeless of Hawaii, life on the beach is no vacation.
Setting up camps under groves of kiawe trees is the choice that many homeless people make over living in shelters. The shelters do not allow dogs, and for these people, their dogs are all they have. It would be like asking them to choose a home over their child.
Neal Eric Blau became homeless after his mother died. He has since been accompanied by his constant companions, two pit bulls named Honey Girl and Mele (Hawaiian for “song”). They stay with him on the flatbed of his truck in Oahu.
He doesn’t see much of his children or grandchildren, but lives to see the smiling faces of his girls greet him each morning.
“That’s my family,” he said. “They’re just like my kids. They give me love.”
They have even helped Blau make an important life change: a special moment with Honey Girl inspired him to stop taking drugs.
Social services offered him a place to live, but he turned them down when they wouldn’t allow him to have two animals.
“My dogs mean more to me than anything else,” Blau explained. “When I run out of dog food, I cook rice for them. When I run out of [that], I feed them my food. … There’s no way I’d give them [up].”
Inga Gibson, Hawaii State Director for the HSUS, tries to change and help find ways around the rules that prevent homeless dog owners from finding homes. Housing in Hawaii is expensive – $800 a month for even a small studio apartment.
A man named Duke says his job doesn’t pay him enough to afford housing, so he lives in a tent with his dog, Hookano (“Stubborn“). His mother said he could live with her, but the dog wasn’t allowed. His choice was easy.
“[Hookano] came into my life at a time when I needed some responsibility—something to love and love me back. … Before him, I just had me. Now, I gotta take care of him.”
But these people do have some assistance: K9 Kokua (“Help“) is a local organization that assists dog owners like Blau and Duke. Volunteers bring dog food and supplies. Veterinary care and training are provided, as well as microchipping and spaying/neutering – a necessity for public housing.
“How many people would come off the beach if they allow pets [in shelters]?” asked Mahe Kukahiko, K9 Kokua’s camp ambassador. “Practically everybody.”
Kukahiko lives in a tent with her Lab mix Karona. She adopted the dog after she contracted Parvo and her owners abandoned her. Next door lives someone with a tent full of Chihuahuas. Almost every tent on the beach has a dog. On a home with no locks, dogs provide some protection. But for most, it is about companionship.
“Animals offer a special comfort,” Gibson said. “They’re not judgmental. They don’t care if you live in a truck.”
K9 Kokua was founded in 2003 by Kale Lyman, who was inspired by a street dog she’d see every day on her way to work. She stopped to meet its owners, and learned they were homeless. They introduced her to other homeless people, who like themselves, did not have the resources to properly care for their dogs. The volunteer-run organization provides homeless dog owners with food, collars, leashes, flea and tick medicine, grooming, behavioral advice and (emergency) veterinary services. They hope to have kennels placed in homeless shelters so people can bring their pets with them.