One Man Can Make A Difference
Utu Langi’s work helping the homeless proves that just one person can make a huge difference in this world. It Started With One Cold Person And A Blanket. Today, Utu Langi Is Leading The Way In Helping The Homeless
By Chad Pata
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Enter David Goya of Roberts Hawaii, who, having heard of Langi’s plans, let him know he had some buses for him - 158 buses, to be exact.
“I was overwhelmed. I thought maybe I would get one or two buses,” says Langi. “It was just an idea, but I didn’t know what to do then.”
They settled on 18 buses as a manageable size to start. Each bus was gutted and then partitioned into eight “rooms” with beds. Currently they have four that are fully operational with staffing, and more to be completed in the upcoming months.
Their current occupants include the evicted residents from under the Nimitz viaduct and tenants from the collapsed home on Gulick Avenue in Kalihi.
“When we first started it, we called it Initial Contact Shelter,” says Langi. “A lot of these guys have been on the street for a long time; they have been living under no rules for a long time, so we have to institute rules for not only their safety, but the safety of the community.”
It has since been renamed the EVANS project (short for Evening Angels) and they use the mobility of the buses as shelters not only to reach the people in need, but to help appease neighborhoods upset about having the homeless there.
“As far as the ‘not in my back yard’ mentality, the bus rolls in there in the evening and is gone in the morning,” says Langi. Buses open at 5:30 p.m. and everyone must be out by 8:30 a.m. “Then there are no shelters around - the buses are gone and the people are gone until the evening, and wherever our buses are is a safe zone. So not only are our people safe, but the community around us is safe.”
Out of all the things Langi has given away in the past 12 years, undoubtedly the best thing was his advice to the homeless when they were to be forced out of Ala Moana Park in March 2006 by Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
“I told the people I don’t want to get involved and they told me, ‘We don’t know anyone else.‘So I asked them who is shutting down the park, they said Mufi, so I said go talk to Mufi,” says Langi.
“They said ‘Mufi won’t be there at night.’ I said perfect, you will have a place to sleep overnight! Me, I open my big mouth.”
The next day Langi is watching the news and the lead item is “Homeless March on City Hall.” An offhand comment at the park had led to an uprising among the indigent community, and despite reservations, Langi headed down.
When he got there he saw more than 100 protesters from all walks of life - from the homeless to church members to Hawaiian rights groups - waving signs. Soon the rain came and with it, the police. They began assembling across from the State Library with paddy wagons, patrol cars and SWAT.
“I knew what intimidation was since I was a kid, and that pissed me off,” says Langi. “I see our marchers and everyone starting to scatter. These are poor people and they were afraid.”
The SWAT team came across the street and told them to vacate the premises and they dutifully did - all except Langi, who told his friend, minister Bob Nakata, his plans.
“I came here tonight to be a voice for our people,” said Langi. “They have been pushed around and have not got a voice. I am going to go and get arrested tonight.”
With that Langi sat down on Santa’s traditional seat in front of Honolulu Hale where three fellow protesters soon joined him, and when they told him to clear out, he made his intentions clear.
“I said, I don’t think so, this is America and the Constitution protects the people and it provides a place for people to come and grieve. If something is wrong, they have the right to come and be heard, you cannot push them to the side.
“When Mufi comes in the morning, he needs to tell these people where they are supposed to go. He is the mayor of this town, he needs to answer that.”
His little speech earned him a night in the pokey, but more importantly it sparked a month-long protest that led to Gov. Linda Lingle getting personally involved and securing the 46,000-square-foot Kaka’ako warehouse on Forrest Avenue to serve as a temporary shelter for the displaced Ala Moana residents.
Her only obstacle was whom to tap to run the place, so she reached out to an out-of-work carpenter with zero management experience to manage a desperate group of 300 people without a place to call home. Langi was a perfect fit.
“H-5 is just a small organization, but the one thing I had going for me was I knew a lot of the people from feeding them over the years,” says Langi.
The warehouse has been transformed from an empty vessel to a neatly partitioned space with a computer lab, dining area and children’s play center. Close to a thousand people have called it home over the past 30 months with 400 being transitioned into their own homes.
The success stories and heart-warming moments are too numerous to account for all of them here, but one that stands out for Langi was how they got their children’s area. When they first opened, they had more than 100 children staying in the shelter with no secure place for them to play.
They prayed for help, as there was no money in the budget to build anything for the kids. One day, an 8-year-old girl named Celia walked into the shelter. In her little hands was a check for $960, it was all the money she had, saved up by working weekend craft fairs with her mom.
“She told me, ‘I saw you on TV and I wanted to give you this check to help out with whatevahs,’” remembers a beaming Langi.
The next thing you know, Celia’s Corner was built so that all the children had a safe haven within the shelter. It is charity like this that makes Langi’s life bright - and it doesn’t always have to be money or food. (Celia’s Corner was the site of the cover photo shoot.)
“People are always asking me what they can do to help, and I ask them, ‘What do you do? What do you enjoy doing?‘Everything helps,” says Langi.
The lesson Langi brings us this holiday season is very clear: The time for asking questions is over. It is only by doing that this world is going to get better.
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