These Old City Buses Have A New Purpose: Mobile Homeless Shelters

Honolulu has found an innovative new option for housing its growing homeless population.

When Honolulu wanted to find a new way to help its growing homeless population, it turned to an unlikely source: Old city buses.

"We were looking at solutions and options that are out there that are within our grasp," says Jun Yang, executive director of the office of housing for the City and County of Honolulu. "What do we have at our fingertips?"

The local government had learned about Lava Mae, a new program in San Francisco that turns decommissioned buses into portable showers for the homeless. Honolulu, it turned out, also has a large supply of old buses. Right now, about 70 are slated to go out of service.

Eventually, the buses would have been recycled and scrapped. "They would have run them to the ground," says Yang. "They would have run them beyond their useful life. At that point, they probably would have cannibalized the buses for parts."
A team of architects volunteered their services to plan a new set of "bus shelters" for the city. One set of the buses, based on designs from Lava Mae, will become hygiene units. Another set will hold four to eight beds, which can fold away so the bus can be used in other ways during the day.

"I think the biggest challenge was making sure that it could be more than just a sleeping bus," says Ma Ry Kim, principle at Group 70 International, the architecture firm that is working on the project. "It could actually fold up and become a bus that services whatever facilities someone needs—it may be a mobile health facility, it may be an art bus. Everything has to fold up to pack away inside."

Unlike something else commonly recycled into housing—shipping containers—buses have some advantages. "The fact that it's a bus means that it's made for a human being," Kim says. "So it's actually very comfortable for a human being to occupy." The buses used in the project will still have working air conditioning. And though they no longer can be used on regular bus routes, they can still be driven around the city to help various communities.

Yang envisions them being used in neighborhoods like Kakkako, near downtown Waikiki, where a homeless encampment has grown over the last decade. The buses won't replace shelters but offer another option. A nonprofit operated a somewhat similar mobile shelter project in the past.

"It became a workable option for homeless people who otherwise would have been on the street," Yang says. "It was a lower-barrier option for some of the homeless that the shelter could no longer provide services for."

The city is also working on other new options, like a new shelter that will allow residents to bring pets, and will provide new support for people with mental illness or addictions.

The bus shelters should be fairly easy and cheap to build; the Department of Transportation will likely donate the buses, and local carpentry unions will donate labor. The challenge will be the hygiene buses, which are more expensive to convert, and may cost $100,000 a pop. Because the city would like to build the buses in pairs—one hygiene bus with one shelter bus—they're working on securing funding for the shower buses now.

"If we have funding for it, we could start tomorrow," Yang says. "It's a great way to give a second life to something that's already been serving the public."