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Homelessness in Hawaii

Hawaii, considered by many as “paradise”, but even in “paradise”, homelessness is front and center.

Homelessness was front and center while on vacation in Hawaii
Homelessness was front and center while on vacation in Hawaii
Louis "Kengi" Carr Photography
Homeless woman resting with her cats
Louis "Kengi" Carr Photography

Since 2000 the number of homeless people in Hawaii has increased by 61 percent. Currently, more than 6,000 people live on the streets in the entire state. While this is very small in comparison to Los Angeles which holds the distinction of being the homeless capitol of the world, U.S. Census data, shows Hawaii’s increase in poverty is among the highest in the nation. About 11.5 percent of states population currently lives in poverty. Even though Hawaii has a warm climate year-round and there could be worse places to be homeless, rape and robbery still exist and are a threat to homeless people.

Hawaii is trying to alleviate the homeless problem, but this is easier said than done and can’t be accomplished quickly enough. In 2005, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded almost $6 million in grants to aid Hawaii’s homeless. Monies were distributed to several agencies and programs, from homeless shelters to drug treatment facilities, but very little has changed. Even a plan to create a “tent city” near Waianae on Oahu’s leeward coast was scrapped because of protests from the resident population, who were afraid that this would lead to an increase in the crime rate in the area. The “not in my backyard” mentality is huge here.

Homelessness is issue that encompasses a host of other problems in Hawaii, the high cost of living, the widening gap in income, access to housing, budgetary concerns and civil liberties. It’s also a highly visible issue, unfolding on the streets of Waikiki where homeless are chased from parks every night

While walking in a park in Waikiki close to the hotel where I was staying, I was able to see firsthand just how bad the problem is because there were several homeless people I passed. The things that stood out for me was how old some of the homeless people were and how appeared to be families. However their faces, with looks of despair was something I’m very familiar with.

While walking out of the park headed back to my hotel I decided to see if I could speak with a few homeless people. I wasn't surprised when most said “no” asking “are you the police or something?” However right as I walked by this older homeless woman I heard her say “Aloha young man.” I knew this was a sign to possibly speak with her.

Her story did not surprise me and wasn't unlike the stories I hear back home in Los Angeles. She told me it wasn't safe in the shelter and she could find better food by “digging in the trash”

Her legs were swollen badly and her left foot was wrapped in a bandage with clear signs of blood. Her basket was full and she even had a litter box and small house for her two cats. “Even if I wanted to go to the shelter, they want to take my cats from me. These cats are my family and all I really have left” she explained. Before leaving I asked if she wanted something to eat or drink. “I don’t want to impose on you, but yes, that would be wonderful.”

“Until you've lost your dignity, you don’t understand homelessness.”

This rings so true in any area where homelessness is present. There is no compassion nor respect for our homeless citizens and we must begin to fully understand that in order to effectively address homelessness in the nation, we must first begin to speak with homeless people.

We can have all the meetings and collect all sorts of data, form committee’s and put together several task forces, but none of this will matter until we actually speak to and care about the people we claim to be doing so much for.

So from Skid Row in Los Angeles to the pristine beaches of Hawaii, homelessness is something many people are talking about, have opinions about and even claim to be doing something about, but when you look at the numbers the answer is very clear that our leaders, be they local or national have no clue when it comes to addressing homelessness.

In the U.S., more than 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. 35% of the homeless population are families with children, which is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. 23% are U.S. military veterans. 25% are children under the age of 18 years. 30% have experienced domestic violence. 20-25% suffer from mental illness. (Source: HUD)

Understanding homelessness requires a grasp of several social issues: poverty, affordable housing, wages and disabilities. While circumstances can vary, the main reason people experience homelessness is because they cannot find housing they can afford. It is the scarcity of affordable housing in the United States, particularly in major cities where homelessness is more prevalent, that is behind their inability to acquire or maintain housing.

One thing is for sure, until we begin to stop blaming homelessness on homeless people and begin to hold those accountable for the work they claim to be doing so well and until we begin to truly engage our massive homeless population, then there will be no change in the numbers of people who face homelessness in the country.

“I would love nothing more than to have a place where I can live. Not exist, but live. The current state of affairs in America is that people like me are the problem, but the real problem is jobs that pay enough for people like me to afford to live inside.” –Jack, homeless military veteran “I served this country, lost most of my sight and one of my legs and this is the thanks I’m given.”

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