Travel | 8 comments
Homeless in Hawaii
By: Zdenko Kahlina
The Other Side Of Paradise
Driving around Oahu island is really interesting. On the east side there are snorkeling spots, beaches and small towns. On the north shore, there are beautiful beaches and big waves – surfing paradise.
Tents like those on Maili Park Beach on the west shore of Oahu house Hawaii’s homeless. Many of those living on beaches have jobs, mostly in the service and construction sectors.
There is also west shore, or Wai’anae area of the island. There are some good snorkel spots in the west, but this time, when we drove along the west shore, we were shocked by how many homeless people were camped in multitudes along the shores, in cars, torn up tents and make-shift huts. Imagine going for a drive, but suddenly seeing a 16-kilometers stretch of tents, and that’s how the Wai’anae coast looks like. Unfortunately, the homeless population has been dominated by the Polynesians and Micronesians.
There are small cities of people living homeless on the beaches, and in the parks. While we have yet to encounter any real trouble, we were just sad to see it, and it made us uncomfortable leaving our car anywhere that was not being watched. It definitely prevented us from exploring as much as we normally would. Our initial impression was that these were beach bums, drop-outs, and surfers who were only taking advantage of a cheap lifestyle, but upon a closer look it has become clear that families are living there. There are children and old people, people who live in dirty clothes and a few who drive expensive cars.
They have taken over miles of beach and half a dozen state parks. There are hundreds of tents and perhaps a couple thousand people — and the number is growing. It is the largest encampment of homeless people we have ever seen in the United States. The western shore of Oahu is a little slice of the third world, right here in our country, just 30 miles from some of the wealthiest people in the world blithely enjoying Waikiki Beach. We can still recommend a couple of great beaches on this Wai’anae side of things, but be aware that it is one of the poorest parts of the Hawaiian Islands. Seeing as how the richest part (Waikiki) is just around the corner, it feels like some kind of yin/yang balance (or imbalance).
We also did not really feel comfortable at the park. It was full of trash, the restrooms were a real mess, and there were only a couple other locals in the area, slowly driving around. So it just did not feel that inviting.
Nobody knows exactly how many people are living on the beach. Kaulana Park, the state’s point man for the homeless, estimated that more than 1,000 people lived on the Waianae Coast beaches, but he cautioned that any count was good only on the day it was taken. And that estimate does not account for the hidden homeless: people who sleep on a relative’s sofa, or in their cars, or camp in areas not as visible as the public beaches.
Many living on the beach have jobs, mostly in the service and construction sectors. They include families with children, who attend public schools by day and sleep in tents on the beach at night.
Homelessness in Hawaii has become so pervasive that the governor has assigned a state employee to work full time at getting people off the beaches and into transitional housing. Once there, they have access to rent assistance programs and low-income housing.
While hundreds of homeless people live on Honolulu’s beaches, including the tourist center Waikiki, it is the Waianae Coast on the semiarid west shore where the problem is most visible. The population of Waianae, home to about 40,000 of Oahu’s 900,000 people, is predominantly native Hawaiian and is historically low income.
Hawaii’s economy has been strong in the last two years and the state consistently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. The real estate market has skyrocketed along with the job growth, and houses on the Waianae Coast that rented for $200 or $300 a month a couple of years ago are now advertised for more than $1,000.
“There was no choice but to come on the beach,” said Ms. Greenwood, 60, who is disabled because of a work-related injury eight years ago and lost her benefits a month before losing her home. When the home she had rented for 30 years for $300 a month was sold, Alice Greenwood and her 6-year-old son joined an estimated 1,000 people living in tents along the 13 miles of beaches on the Waianae Coast of Oahu.
Venise Lewis, 35, who lives near Ms. Greenwood at Maili Beach Park with her husband and two of their four children, said her daughters, ages 8 and 10, must finish their homework in the afternoon because there was no lighting at the beach after sunset.
Ms. Lewis’s oldest daughter lives with a grandmother and her son lives with the family’s pastor.
“They don’t like the idea of living on the beach,” she said of her younger children. “Usually when we go camping, we go home if it rains.”
The homeless problem in Hawaii came to light in March, when the City and County of Honolulu began a cleanup of Ala Moana Beach Park, at the entrance to Waikiki, and began closing the park at night in response to complaints.
Hundreds of homeless people, or “illegal campers,” as the city calls them, moved to an emergency transitional shelter set up by the state in a warehouse close to downtown Honolulu. But some went west, closer to the Waianae Coast communities where they were raised. The city has since conducted similar cleanups at other beaches.
Lester Chang, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the number of illegal campers made it difficult for his department to keep the parks safe and clean.
“I think all communities have to deal with this situation, but Hawaii is unique because it’s an island,” Mr. Chang said. “There’s no place to push them off to.”
Honolulu officials say finding long-term solutions to the homeless problem on Oahu is the state’s responsibility. The city’s housing department was abolished in the late 1990s after a scandal. Mr. Park has been talking with New York City officials about how to adapt New York’s solutions to an island state. He said he was inspired by a speech last summer by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who told of how the city had secured financing for some 12,000 units of supportive housing, and of the city’s program to help people stay in their homes by interceding with landlords to head off evictions. Hawaii has started a similar program.
In late October, the state opened a transitional shelter for 30 families, including 90 children, at a converted 1940s military building in Kalaeloa, the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station. On Nov. 18, the state poured the foundation for an emergency transitional shelter in Waianae that will house up to 300 people when it opens early next year. The state is looking at building shelters at eight more sites along the Waianae Coast.
But Dino Palisbo, who has been living at Maili Beach Park with his girlfriend and their three dogs for about a year, said some people did not want to trade the freedom of the beach for the rules of a transitional shelter. “Half of them can pay rent, but it is so high it is going to take them out of the comfort zone,” Mr. Palisbo said. “When a studio costs $700 or $800, how can a family put four or five kids there?”
Others, like Ms. Greenwood, did not want to leave their communities for the state’s shelter at Kalaeloa, which is 10 miles from the beach park and several miles from the nearest bus route. She plans to move to the new shelter in Waianae, set to open next spring, because it is closer to her son’s school and her community activities.
Mr. Park said other homeless people on the beach looked up to Ms. Greenwood, who is a member of the state’s Oahu Island Burial Council, which works to protect ancient Hawaiian remains. A widow, she also has four adult children, but the only daughter who lives nearby has a studio apartment too small for Ms. Greenwood and the boy she adopted, Makalii Hatchie.
“She takes it upon herself to be somewhat of a leader,” Mr. Park said.
Ms. Greenwood said she hoped to begin collecting Social Security benefits and settle her workers’ compensation case soon so that she and her son could find a new home.
“Being homeless is not a crime, it is the fault of the government,” she said. “I can understand when it’s 20, 30 people, but when it hits the thousands. …”
Parts of this blog are from the New York Times.