When you think of Hawai’i, what do you see? I can almost guarantee that the image of sparkling Waikiki beaches and surfers come to mind. The tiki torch lit street at night full of boutiques and the Night Market crawling w/ tourists from all over the world. Perhaps you have read about or even traveled to Hawai’i’s historic North Shore on O’ahu, where after a day on the beach you enjoy one of Matsumoto’s Shave Ice in Hale’iwa. You may have seen the Shipyard and toured the Arizona Memorial, paying respects to over 1,100 sailors and marines who lie there resting (or perhaps you are one of the people who bring their screaming children and touristy glee to what is literally a grave). You may have been to the Polynesian Cultural Center and seen the world famous lu’au there. Hawai’i, especially O’ahu w/ about 80% of the population of the whole state, is a beautiful and famous vacation spot, and some people save their whole lives to visit. But they rarely see the other side of Hawai’i, the side that is exploited and overlooked. The side that no one hears about and that no one even considers.
The Islands of Hawai’i have around 6,000 homeless persons combined, w/ approximately 3,500 on O’ahu alone (as of 2005), but these numbers shift daily, and any count can only be considered good on the day it was taken. There are two main groups into which the homeless are divided, sheltered and unsheltered. Sheltered includes people living in transitional units and emergency shelters. Even sheltered numbers are unreliable b/c it doesn’t account for people who are able to crash w/ friends and relatives, those who sleep in their cars in places unseen by those looking, and other people who’s conditions change from moment to moment.
The highest number, however, are Hawai’i’s unsheltered homeless, totaling somewhere around 60 percent of the total numbers. Of that number, about 26 percent are US veterans, and a startling amount of them are from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (it should be noted that US military makes up about 11 percent of Hawai’i’s population, and only 1 percent of the national population, so 26 percent should seem drastically high), people who can not cope w/ normal civilian life. The horrors and conditions of war give them mental and sleep disorders causing them inability to hold their civilian jobs. The other large factors contributing are people w/ substance addictions and mental disorders. After that are women, women who lose their homes from divorce or loss of a relationship (and usually w/ their children), and many leaving a partner or parent’s home to escape abuse. According to Sen. Will Espero (D-Ewa Beach), there are only about 15 emergency agencies for homeless women nationwide, and women’s boarding houses are rare.
So where are these unsheltered homeless persons hiding?
About 1,500 of them are in a tent city that covers about 13 miles of the Waianae Coast’s public and quiet beach. W/ housing costs climbing steadily in Hawai’i over the last couple of years more people are turning to the beaches for a place to live. In 2003 police and citizens began rousting people from public parks, closing them in Waikiki at night in response to complaints from residents and tourists. Homeless people moved from park to park, and settled on remote public beaches. Here they have established communities and alliances w/ each other in order to survive. Many of them have jobs, but w/ the average cost of rent per month hovering around $1,000 some of them just can’t make it. In a state where rent is climbing, wages remain low (most jobs in tourism pay above the national minimum, but it is still not a “livable” wage), and fuel and food prices are soaring causing tourism to fall those dollars are not making it. Being rousted and constantly moving makes it difficult for social workers and other homeless advocates to find people to even let them know that housing has become available.
While these tent cities, full of what some people call “illegal campers” since they can not get camping permits to stay in parks, are not ideal there are some who choose to stay rather than leaving their support system. Some shelters tear children, already in unstable conditions, from their schools and leave people as much as 10 miles from public bus stops, making it difficult to get to work.
Homelessness is not a phenomenon specific to Hawai’i, but it is different here due to the state being an island. Remember that Hawai’i is, geographically speaking, the single most isolated piece of land in the world, so there is no where for the government to “shove them off” to. In fact, there is a rumor that other states do what is called “homeless dumping“, and the more I read the more I agree w/ the Council member, it is real. It also means that there is little land available, and at high cost, for building housing units. There is a push in the local government to drive a “housing first” policy, recognizing that a home is a basic human right, and that blaming homelessness on “personal responsibility” is not only not helping, but actually ignoring the problem altogether. Hawai’i’s homeless are also disproportionately Native Hawai’ian, who are among the state’s disproportionately poor. Even people living in Hawai’i in the magical and so called “middle class” are getting by b/c they house two or three or maybe more generations of families together in small homes. W/ the economy here hampered by recent events, the already strained Hawai’ian people don’t have a lot to look forward to.
When you think of paradise and vacation spots consider the privilege you have that you are able to do that. I consider it a privilege every day that the military allowed me to come to a place I may never have seen and gave me resources to be OK. I have the privilege of being able to get by in this economically hardened state. I have to check that privilege every time I can flee the beach during the rain.
Hawai’i is more than just grass skirts and fire dancers, fabulous shopping and juicy exotic fruit. There are real people living under the sun. The woman who wipes your table at the Outrigger may just go back to the beach, another beach, and struggle under her tent to care for her young children. Tent cities are real, and not just a far off consequence of the current economic situation we find ourselves in. They are not some memory of the Depression. They are a reality for a huge portion of a crowded population. Is it any wonder that so many people here don’t consider Clinton’s Apology Resolution enough? Homelessness in a national problem, being ignored nationally, and arguably contributed to by the Government of the Mainland.
I can’t help but wonder how much good 700 billion dollars could do for this actual National Crisis.
H/t to Renee, who got me thinking…and who wanted to know more.