Homelessness on Oahu

Hawai’i is paradise. You might be expecting me to now make some sort of comment about how it has been ruined or  how it’s really not paradise, but I’m not going to do that. Hawai’i is paradise. I love it. It really is every bit as good as you might imagine it is. There is no denying that. When you look at the water, swim in it, breathe the salt air, feel the tradewinds, or wake up and hear the birds – you know – this is heaven.

Even for  homeless people , this is paradise. I mean it’s still paradise when they are looking for a place to sleep, or trying to get their kids ready for school in a makeshift cardboard hut or car, or sleeping on a park bench. People who are homeless enjoy all the benefits of Hawai’i just like everyone else – but I’m not trying to say they have it easy or that the homeless person epidemic here isn’t a serious problem. It’s a huge problem. Hawaii has more homeless people per capita than anywhere else in the USA. We have three distinct groups. People from here who have been priced out of paradise, people with drug/alcohol/mental illness issues, and transplants who either came here to be homeless or were sent here so they wouldn’t freeze (or be someone else’s problem).

There are a lot of people that consider homelessness a problem because it impedes on their ability to enjoy paradise. They complain about the homeless spoiling the perfect view or about homeless people camping on the beaches or sidewalks. They want homeless people swept away so they can enjoy more of paradise. They want someone to take care of the ‘homeless problem’, they just don’t want to have to deal with it. I admit it, that would be nice – it would be great if it all just disappeared and everyone was happy and we could all admire million dollar views out our windows without having to see other people suffering – but that’s just not going to happen because homelessness isn’t the problem. It can’t be solved in a vacuum. The problem is not homelessness – that would make it simple. The problem is systemic – it’s our society and culture that is the problem. It’s the culture of greed and the society of selfishness and the glorificaton of wealth and riches over things like empathy and compassion. America is a nation based on many lies. The American dream is an illusion based on a lie. We don’t all have the same opportunities.

Here is a little background: Hawaii was made to be an agricultural place. Perfect climate, great soil, great weather, plenty of fresh water. Never freezes. Summer all year long. Native Hawaiian people took advantage of that. They didn’t import anything. They had intensive agriculture and aquaculture. They supported a population of as many as a million people – with about four hours of work per person each day. Today, we have a population of about 1.3 million, we import 90% of what we need and use, and the average person here has to work 10-12 hours a day to support themselves – more to support a family. It wasn’t always like that. Through the 1970s this was still an agricultural place.  Sugar and Pineapple were grown and processed and that provided the bulk of the economy. These were family wage jobs. Then, environmental laws, labor laws, insurance laws, and shipping laws changed. Sugar could make more money elsewhere and it moved. It took all the family wage sugar processing jobs with it. Pineapple moved a lot of production too. So did most of the high paying pineapple jobs.

The rest of our economy was based on military support jobs (as many as 250k troops here at any given time) and federal, state, and local government jobs. Tourism was the number four sector. Hawaii was in a panic and all that was available was increasing tourism. It worked. Sort of. Tourism jobs are low paying and the tourism boom drove up the cost of living, the cost of land, the cost of housing, the cost of everything. And there you go…2018 – we have a huge homeless person population, about 1/3rd of them priced out of paradise. There’s a reason hotel workers in Waikiki are striking right now. 

I know a little bit about being homeless on Oahu (Down and Out on the Island of Oahu , July 30, 2004), enough to know that I don’t want it – I’d much rather be homeless on the mainland than here – although there are things here like showers at the beach, balmy weather, tropical fruit growing wild if you know where to look, and more – the problem is – this is an island and there is nowhere you can really go to get away. I see homeless people under bridges, building rafts and boats to sleep on, on their bikes, yesterday I spotted a guy just having a nap under a bush.  Taken by itself, it almost looks idyllic – but you have to account for the police telling you to wake up and move along when you are breaking the law by sleeping in your vehicle or the complete and total lack of parking if you choose to live in a vehicle, the homeless sweeps that force the homeless to move along and the bedbugs – if you don’t think the homeless are getting eaten alive by bedbugs, you simply haven’t thought about it. And if you haven’t experienced bedbugs, then count your lucky stars.

There are people working hard to help the homeless here. A church on the windward side of the island has built shelters

In this Friday, April 22, 2016 photo, a dome-shaped shelter is shown at the First Assembly of God church in Honolulu. The church is looking into an unexpected solution to state’s homeless crisis: they’re planning to erect Alaska-made igloos to house homeless families. The snow-inspired dome-shape structures would appear at first glance to be a misfit among the island state’s palm trees and sandy beaches, but their bright fiberglass exterior reflects the sun, shading those inside. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

Hawai’i is a part of the United States but it isn’t a part of North America – so technically, it’s not an American place. Unfortunately, American ways of doing things have been undermining the spirit of aloha here since the days of the missionaries. I’m not about to tell you that the kapu system was better than democracy – I have no way of really knowing that – no one does since it was completely overturned in the early 1800s – but I will tell you that the rat race, the greed and corruption, the awful drive for wealth and riches is destroying the empathy and compassion of people all over the world – even here. I’m not so sure we have a homeless problem as much as we have a wealth problem here in Hawai’i and a growing empathy and compassion problem too.  Don’t get me wrong – even with the problems – I believe Hawai’i is a better place to live  than the rest of the United States – but it could be better for everyone if we focused a little more on aloha and compassion. 

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