#FlashbackFriday #vanlife on Oahu in 2004

#vanlifeThis is the story of me living in a van on Oahu in 2004. You can read a bit about it in a letter I wrote to the Honolulu Advertiser at the time –  Down and Out on the Island of Oahu

A bit of context here so that my Hawaii timeline makes sense. I arrived for the first time in Hawaii in October of 2001. 16 months later, I moved from the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel to Punalu’u on the Windward Side of Oahu for a failed experiment that ended up like a modern and less deadly Lord of the Flies. I fled from that mess to Kauai where I bought a rustbucket VW van and lived on the beach in Kapaa for thirteen months before going to the Philippines for three months after which I came back to Kauai until October of 2003 when I sold my rust bucket and followed a flight attendant I’d fallen for to Portland, Oregon where I tried to impress her by showing that an island boy could become a stock broker – it turned out that I liked being an island boy better and she knew enough drunk miserable guys in suits anyway – during that time I wrote my first book Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond – my publisher suggested that I do a promotion tour (and all the promotion) so I took my old VW van (not the rustbucket), left the brokerage, and spent the next five months drinking heavily and shilling my book to anyone who I talked to. It turned out my efforts led to a lot of interest – unfortunately, this was the early days of e-books and my publisher hadn’t protected the book and it ended up on a number of free download sites where it was downloaded tens of thousands of times while providing no revenue to me – the print version sold about a thousand copies which yielded me about $500 in the inequitable publishing deal I’d signed. I found myself in a lonely relationship with a girl who was gone more than she was home (not the flight attendant, by the way) – I tried my hand at commercial salmon fishing in the Puget Sound made enough money to book a flight back to Oahu, traded my VW van for a laptop and $500 (one of the stupidest decisions I’ve made but at the time it made sense) and came back to Honolulu where I bought another shitty van and was determined to write my first novel – which eventually became Slackville Road. Here is the excerpt from my Blogspot blog of the time.


June 25, 2004
Alright…I can’t resist. I’m living in a van again. This time on the island of Oahu. I got the van for $175. It’s a plymouth voyager and it seems to have fuel injection problems. It gets me where I need to go though, so far. I’m having a hard time sleeping at night. maybe because it’s an island, it’s a littel different than my old VW days.

The main annoyances….there are no parking signs everywhere mostly 10PM to 7AM, Hawaiians love to play loud music and have impromptu parties in marinas and parks without no parking signs. I tend to avoid drunken gatherings of big Samoans, Hawaiians, Tongans, and Filipinos. People in neighborhoods are so fucking healthy, they wake up at 5AM and start raking leaves, running, watering plants, etc) which makes it hard to sleep in a van undetected.People actually know each other in neighborhoods here, so I stand out…people look and say “Who is that guy in the van?” not like the mainland where no one knows anyone else.

Despite all of that, I’m figuring it out. I generally sleep in two stages, moving at least once during the night. In the day, I make coffee in the van, swim, shower at the beach, go for a sunrise run (yeah, I’m healthy too!), read for a while, then go to the library where I work on my novel. One very cool thing is wifi…I can use peoples internet from my van with my laptop. Very cool. I usually buy what I want to eat and then cook it. Why have extra. All in all. Life is pretty good. Hopefully, I can get my van fixed soon, the fuel injectors seem to be going out…crapola.Hawaii Hammock Time

This van phase lasted for a couple more months before it became too depressing and awful. During my time living in a van in Hawaii, I explored constantly and found plenty of great spots to string up my hammock. I worked odd jobs with a lot of them being in labor, construction, and television. I found a niche in the growing reality TV market as a productions assistant, location scout, and casting assistant. I’m ashamed to admit that I got several paychecks from The Apprentice. No one ever knew that I was homeless unless I told them. Towards the end of 2004 though, it had become too much. It was time for me to rent a place of my own. I had briefly rented a basement room in Portland while I was a stockbroker, but other than that, I hadn’t paid rent in nearly three years.

I found an awesome little studio in Kailua for $900/month and got hired as a private tour guide by Carey Hawaii, a high end limousine company. I had to have a suit for the job and (true story) found one that almost fit me in a thrown out suitcase next to a storage unit dumpster. It was close enough to my size that I had it tailored for $50. The tailor told me it was an $800 suit and admired the quality. From that time forward, I’ve had my name on a lease whenever I’ve lived in Hawaii. Hawaii might sound like a great place to be homeless, but it’s not. I got lucky on Kauai with an amazing place to park where no one would harass me, but on Oahu – it was awful.

A few years later when Twitter came along  in 2007 (I’ve always been a very early adopter), I was regularly using the hashtags #vanliving and #vanlife as I promoted my books. I was among the first to use those particular hashtags, maybe even the first.

Vago Christopher Damitio
I never looked homeless when I was homeless.

Since I’ve given the rest of my timeline in Hawaii, I might as well finish – in 2006, my girlfriend (then fiance) and I rented a lovely little cottage in Lanikai and then for work and school we moved to a place on the Punchbowl. When our relationship fell apart – I found a perfect little 1-bedroom in Manoa where I lived until I graduated in December of 2008. After that, I left Hawaii to wander around the world until mid-2013 when I moved myself, my wife, and our 18 month old daughter from Morocco to Reedsport, Oregon. We were there until 2017 when we moved to Honolulu and have been living in the Salt Lake Neighborhood.

I enjoyed most of my time living in vans in the Pacific Northwest and on Kauai – but I never want to live in a van again unless I own a piece of property I can park it on. The sad reality is that when I was living the #vanlife, there weren’t many people doing it and it was possible to blend in – at least a little. It’s not the case today – there are so many older folks and people without options who have moved into their vehicles – they are all a half step from being on the streets with no shelter – all it takes is a breakdown, an impound, or too many tickets. I love seeing all the nomadic millenials living the van lifestyle with their $20k Westphalia vanagons and their Mercedes Sprinter vans – the truth is – van living is a great thing when you are in your twenties. It’s great when you are young and beautiful and able to do yoga in the park at sunrise each day – but there’s nothing beautiful about a person in their forties living in a vehicle.

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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