Blaisdell Park, Pearl City, Hawaii
Copyright © 2016 by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only.
It was the 5th day of my 10-day stay in Hawaii. I woke up early to go for a run. I had been chugging up the long hill of Waimano Home Road for a couple of days, so I decided to seek an easier route. I drove down the hill to Blaisdell Park, what used to be called Pearl Harbor Park, perched along the shoreline of East Loch in Pearl Harbor. There was an asphalt trail there that runs just over 5 miles from Aiea Bay Park to the Honolulu Police Academy in Waipahu. On my previous visits, I had made frequent use of the trail, mainly for walking. My memory of the trail is mainly of illegal trash dumps along the waterfront fighting for visual space with the magnificent views of the harbor. Of course, it's been 11 years since my last visit, so the area has changed.
I pulled into the parking lot at Blaisdell Park, and after stretching, headed for the trail. The first thing that caught my eye was a line of tents between the trail and the water. As I came closer, I realized that this park had become one of many of the homeless encampments on O'ahu.
I headed west towards the Navy base, and as I ran, I saw that there were encampments almost all along the trail, essentially wherever there was space to pitch a tent. Remembering that this was where trash used to be dumped, now people are dumped.
Homelessness is a national problem, but an especially acute one for Honolulu. In June 2015, the City conducted a point-in-time survey of the camps and concluded that there were just under 5,000 homeless people on O'ahu. This equates to a rate of 487 per million, the highest in the United States.
There are several elements that drive this crises. Hawaii in general, and Honolulu in particular, is one of the most expensive places in the world to live. It is estimated that a family of 4 requires a monthly income (after taxes) of just under $4,000. Rents run from around $1,600 to more than $5,000, and what is available at the low end would embarrass a lawnmower, let alone a family. Because almost all the food has to be shipped from the Mainland (as the locals call the lower 48) it is shockingly expensive. Put simply, living here is just as expensive as Manhattan.
Doing the simple math, in order to make the minimum amount to house and feed a family, a person needs to be making a minimum of $25.00 per hour, far above the prevailing minimum wage of $7.25. That's assuming that the jobs are available, even at the low end. Honolulu's economy consists largely of three parts: The military, tourism, and agriculture. 75 years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Hawaii is still a key strategic base for the U.S. military, and home to research and development of certain defense technologies. Visitors come here by the millions, not only from the Mainland, but Europe and Asia as well. The agricultural segment has taken serious hits in the last 40 years. Sugar production from cane crops is 10% of what it was in 1970, and the signature product, pineapple has fallen to 20% of what it was back then. Thus, the jobs that are available usually call for specific skills that a homeless person is unlikely to possess. There are construction jobs that crop up infrequently, but never in enough numbers to make a difference.
Being an island, land is at a premium, so whatever is built on the land is very expensive. The median value of a home on O'ahu is $624,000. There are apartments available for less than $100k, but they are studios in the size range of 300 to 400 square feet, too small by law to house a family. Plus, many of these units carry hefty HOA fees on top of the mortgage. Besides, no bank is going to loan a mortgage to a person with an address of "tent, Blaisdell Park."
Still, if one has to be homeless, Hawaii is, from a climate aspect, probably the best place to be. The summers are hot, but survivable, and the winter temperatures usually dip into the 60's at night. This has attracted homeless from other areas. There is a sneaking suspicion that some cities are giving their homeless a ticket to the islands rather than continuing to fund them through welfare. But there are homeless here from other countries as well, some from other Pacific islands.
The good citizens of Hawaii, as fundamentally a kind and compassionate population as you're likely to find anywhere this side of Heaven, try to do what they can to alleviate the suffering, contributing food, clothing, and money when they can, knowing full well that no one can qualify for public assistance without a permanent address. In recent years, public officials, responding to complaints about aggressive panhandling in the tourist areas, have moved in to "clean up" homeless encampments. But once displaced, there is no one to tell the homeless where they can go. It's not just tourism that drives these actions. Such camps have, in the past in other places, been vectors for disease outbreaks. The last thing Hawaii wants is a pandemic for which ground zero was a homeless camp.
Homelessness is a complex issue for any municipality, at least one reason being that there are different kinds of homeless people.
There are those who, for reasons not necessarily their own fault, have been bumped off the economy bus. There are those who suffer from mental or emotional problems, either from illness or drug or alcohol addiction. These are the two best known groups.
But there is a third group. These are people who chose to live off the grid, driven to live a life free of responsibility or accountability, having rejected what they see as existence driven by greed and ambition. Among these are people who are hiding, either from the law or something more personal.
Because of these reasons, there can be no one-size-fits-all solution, because there is no one-size-fits-all problem. The mentally ill and addicted need treatment, but no tax base is large enough to fund the professionals and infrastructure necessary to treat people who number in the thousands. For the chronically unemployed, somehow there has to be a way to bridge the gap between minimum wage and a sustainable income so that a job truly becomes a way to climb out of the tents and into apartments.
Solutions have proven to be elusive, and there doesn't appear to be any brilliant ideas on the horizon.
"The poor will always be with you," says the Bible, but we as a human race simply cannot stand aside and let homelessness continue to snowball. There will come a point where the problem will become irreversible, or when we reach the point of giving up. As former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said, "We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can't solve."
A solution, in the final analysis, may not come from government. We are all born with a heart, in which resides a reservoir of compassion. When we think about homelessness, we tend to think about the thousands. It may be a way for us to recognizing the humanity in those individuals. The problem is huge, but we don't have huge solutions. Perhaps we must think more in terms of not trying to save the whole world, but picking a small corner and doing what we can.
Mother Teresa once said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one." If we think that "someone" should do something about the homeless, then perhaps we should remember that each one of us is a "someone." Start there. Start small. Start with one. Others will see and remember, and perhaps start with another one.
With all the ambiguity surrounding homelessness, one thing is certain.
It is a human problem, waiting for a human solution.