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Retired tour buses shelter Hawaii’s homeless

Utu Langi converts old tourist buses into mobile shelters for the homeless on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. UMNS photos by Kim Griffis.

A UMNS Report
By Lilla Marigza*

Dec. 17, 2008

The buses are part of a ministry aided by Honolulu First United Methodist Church.

Utu Langi has made a name for himself as an innovative advocate for the homeless on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Several times a week, Langi and volunteers distribute meals to homeless men, women and children living in public parks in and around Honolulu.

The homeless are drawn to the beach parks for the same reasons that tourists are: clean restrooms, sinks and showers, and spaces to camp under the trees. However, public bathrooms are no place for families to live.

A few years ago on a rainy day, Langi ducked into one of these restrooms and found a homeless family with small children taking shelter. The sad discovery stayed with Langi as he wondered what to do.

"I thought to myself, 'What would be a cheap way to get people just very basic shelter?' All of a sudden, a big tour bus drove by us, and I said, 'I wonder what bus companies do with their old buses.'"

Part of the scenery

In Hawaii, brightly painted buses are a frequent sight as they carry guests to see Pearl Harbor, the Dole Plantation or other popular tourist attractions in Oahu.

Eight plywood bunks replace bus seats.

Langi convinced one of the largest tour companies, Roberts Hawaii, to donate a few of its old buses for conversion into mobile homeless shelters. Rows of seats are removed, and bunks are built out of plywood. Each bus will sleep eight people.

Working through the permit process with city and state officials took years of negotiating. Finally, in September, three buses were put into service as shelters—two parked nightly in the parking lot of a partner church in Honolulu and a third was used briefly by the Red Cross as a temporary shelter following recent flooding on the island.

The converted buses are just the latest addition to a long-term plan to provide shelter for Honolulu’s homeless. In 1996, Langi founded H-5, which stands for Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope.

Among the services offered by H-5 are a food pantry and a special Sunday meditation service at Honolulu First United Methodist Church, where Langi attends. A feeding ministry prepares and delivers 3,000 meals a week to places where the homeless gather.

Responding to God's grace

Langi’s determination to help the homeless comes from an unlikely place. As a young man in the 1980s, he ran with a bad crowd and began selling drugs. He was homeless for much of his teen life, and his first stint behind bars was at age 13. Eventually, Langi was sentenced to spend 45 years in prison, but God had another plan.

"Through the mercy of the Lord and the courts, I am here today," Langi says. "The only way I can repay for all the love that was given to me is to, I guess, love somebody else."

Langi vowed to stay out of trouble but struggled to find honest work. "I didn’t know what else to do. No one in the pharmaceutical market was hiring ex-drug dealers," Langi jokes.

He fell back on his skills as a carpenter. Then, while driving home from a construction job late one chilly evening, he saw a homeless man sleeping on a bench at the bus stop.

"I had a blanket in the back of my truck to cover my tools with, and so I was wondering, 'Should I do the Jesus thing, or should I just go home because I was tired?'" he recalls. "I came back, tapped the guy on his feet, put the blanket on him and asked the most dumbest question, 'Are you cold?' And that’s how my whole life was changed."

Langi turned to fellow members of Honolulu First United Methodist Church. His first plea was for more blankets. Soon, church members also began delivering hot soup to the homeless, and H-5 was born. Since then, Langi has dedicated his life to serving the homeless every day.

Langi encourages others to rethink the problem of homelessness in their own communities.

"We need to reach out to them. We need to stop calling them homeless and bums. That is our way of distancing ourselves from them," he says. "These are somebody’s sons or someone’s daughter. We need to step up to the plate and serve." 

*Marigza is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn. 

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newdesk@umcom.org.

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H-5: Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope

UMCOR: Hunger/Poverty Resources

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