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Homelessness in Paradise

KAILUA, Hawaii—Of all the human problems that have spawned much urban blight in many countries today, nothing is more depressing than homelessness.

It brings up the classic dilemma: If you help the homeless, you’re “enabling” them to become dependent on others for their livelihood. If you enforce the law, you can be seen as apathetic or even abusive toward an unfortunate group of people who cannot help themselves.

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Homelessness is especially acute in the inner city, but has spread to suburbia. Kailua, some 30 miles out of Honolulu, is your stereotypical image of a tropical paradise—affluent and middle-class, known for its gentle winds, gleaming white-sand beaches, and majestic mountain ranges shaped like accordions.

As I write this, police authorities are still looking for the killers of Scott MacMillan, who was found dead in this quiet town where he had made a “home” in the streets after losing his job. He was a victim of a brutal stabbing.

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In fact, Honolulu has recently witnessed the deaths of four other homeless men. Some of these men could not be identified because they had neither IDs nor other papers with them. One who was found unresponsive in a bus stop is described only as “Caucasian, 5 feet 10 inches tall and 125 pounds, with white hair and blue eyes.”

Another victim is described as “Asian, 5 feet 7 inches tall and 114 pounds, with brown eyes and balding gray hair.” There is a multiplicity of Asian ethnicity in Hawaii, so that description can fit anybody from Asia and the Pacific.

There are many variations of the growing homeless demographic in Hawaii. Some are from the working poor who cannot afford to rent a place. So they sleep just anywhere they can find an empty space, usually in public parks, even on sidewalks, or on the beach.

Others, like MacMillan, have lost their jobs and have nowhere to go.

Fortunately, as I walk around and occasionally talk to some of them, I have not met a single Filipino, male or female, who is homeless. This can be attributed to our basic cultural value of taking care of our “problematic” family members. We don’t throw them out in the streets. In places like Kalihi, a predominantly Filipino neighborhood, there are houses built to accommodate as many as 20 people to a household, mostly related to one another.

An increasing number of the homeless come from the US mainland; they arrive in Hawaii with a one-way airplane ticket. They’d rather die in Paradise than in the frozen streets of Chicago or New York. There was even a ridiculous proposal at the state legislature to raise funds for their tickets back to the mainland. But, of course, they’ll come back again.

Still others are military veterans suffering all kinds of postwar or posttraumatic disorders and are not eligible for medical assistance or treatment. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other areas where there are US troops have swelled the ranks of the homeless everywhere.

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Finally, there are the “chronically homeless,” who suffer from various physical, emotional and mental disorders, including substance abuse. There is now a shortage of programs to assist the physically and mentally disabled, even those with homes, so imagine the plight of those who are ailing and also homeless and with no insurance.

There are many variations of homeless people but there is a tendency to view them all as a “single class.” State, city and county authorities have grappled with various solutions, as well as with stricter law enforcement, but the problem persists. Even if there were available shelters, many refuse to be “institutionalized.”

When driven away from one location, the homeless just move to another place with their makeshift tents and devices for survival in the streets or beaches. Many public parks have been appropriated by the homeless, including children who should be in school. The general public avoids these places and actually resent the homeless for the inconveniences they cause, or the government, which doesn’t do enough for them.

In a recent poll on whether the problem of homelessness has gotten better or worse or remained the same in the past year, 55 percent said “worse,” 38 percent said “the same,” and only 4 percent said “better.” The problem shows no signs of abating.

Even Waikiki and Chinatown, attractions for Hawaii’s premier tourism industry, are getting alarmed over losing business because of the problem. Especially troubling is the increasing number of young people who have joined this new urban demographic.

Meanwhile, in an effort to boost tourism even more, or attract business to the state, Hawaii has embarked on a vigorous high-rise building program in the Kaka’ako district, which now looks like a high wall of concrete blocking the ocean from public view. The new skyline obscuring the magnificent sunset looks hideous and intimidating. This “new development” is intended to cater to the rich. It’s just a matter of time before the bubble bursts, as has happened in the past.

This is the irony in Paradise: As the problem of homelessness escalates to alarming proportions, there is a troubling accompanying pattern of overdevelopment—luxurious high-rise condominiums for the rich and yet unborn generations.

Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she taught political science and Asian studies and served as founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies.

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TAGS: Chinatown, homeless, homelessness, Kailua, Tropical Paradise, US Mainland, Waikiki
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