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Down and Out in Paradise

Homeless in Hawai’i

by COSME CAAL

Jets loaded with vacationers always take the picturesque turn over Waikiki beach as they enter Honolulu airspace and prepare for landing. To the tourist, the tall hotel buildings that line the Waikiki waterfront promise them air conditioned rooms, fancy restaurants, hula dancers, and other exotic trappings. The aloha they have heard so much about engulfs their minds as the plane softly lands and the vast Pacific welcomes them. The pleasant breeze and the incessant beautiful sun bathes them as they prepare for a promised good time in paradise.

But the tourists will at once be bothered and surprised to see so many homeless people living in parks, on the beaches, lingering by bus stops. The tourist, especially the ones who are used to living away from such atrocities of modern America, feels cheated because this is not the Hawaii they imagined. They wanted the aloha spirit, the latest cocktail drinks, and lush rainforests.

According to Jessie Schiewe, writing for the now defunct Honolulu Weekly on March 9, 2011, “13,886 people experienced homelessness and/or received shelter services in Hawaii,” the majority being in Honolulu. Around 74 percent of people using shelters are unemployed, with 23 percent of those having a college education and almost half a high school education or GED. It is instructive to learn what Hawaii’s government has planned to address the rising numbers of homeless people on the islands. In July 2013 Hawaii’s state legislature approved a $100,000 per year for a three-year pilot project to get some homeless people off the islands. The idea is that a significant percentage of them are from the mainland, but this is an argument that bears no actual verification from the homeless themselves.

There are countless blog postings by tourists complaining about the police not mobilizing enough force to get rid of homeless people. Truth be told it takes a particular sense of entitlement to travel another land and expect for local people to reproduce a world likeable to the tourist, because they can always encroach on another people’s land, somewhere else in the world. Such is the power of tourism.

What most tourists do not understand, or seem to care about regarding Hawaii’s laws and way of life, is the Law of the Splintered Paddle, created by King Kamehameha I, a law later instituted into the Hawaiian State Constitution (Article 9, Section 10). The Law of the Splintered Paddle demands that we, “let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” Although Kānāwai Māmalahoe, as the law is known in Hawaiian, predates western laws of private property, it is a sentiment shared by kanaka maoli, the original Hawaiians, and accepted and incorporated into the everyday life of local people of the Islands. This is why once this sentiment is understood, even superficially, the “offensive” number of “homeless” people in Hawaii can also be understood as people being taken care of and protected from outsiders, the haole.

Since 2001 a new wave of migrants has flown into the Hawaiian islands just as a wave of Hawaiians has left. The U.S. military presence on the islands has grown back to WWII levels. Many personnel have opted to stay on the islands through housing programs that help them afford a home in the otherwise expensive real estate market.

Simultaneously, wealthy people from the western coast of the USA are moving in increasing numbers to the islands, driving up the cost of housing and living. This migration from the outside by people who know very little about, or care very little about the aloha spirit and the necessary balance between humans and all living creatures has created a hell on heaven for kanaka maoli (Hawaiians) and historical local peoples. No longer being able to afford houses, house payments, rent, or even food, thousands upon thousands are driven to become homeless in their own homeland. The migration of outsiders (haole) who bring their capitalist notions of private property further pushes the local government to privatize public space, just like in the mainland United States. This promises further sorrow, poverty to native locals who do not care for, and do not benefit from such a system.

The social obligations of employer to employee are all but hidden from any analysis of the homeless crisis in a tourist destination like Hawaii. This is especially true in Honolulu, the heart of this industry, where beaches like Waikiki are heard of and dreamed about the world over. The minimum wage remains just a little under $8/hour. Many locals need to have two or three jobs to barely cover rent and food.

Heavily contested housing projects make the news headlines because they will benefit military personal and outsiders from the United States. Locals refuse these projects because they will be built on sacred lands, and will continue to displace Hawaiians further into inhospitable parts of the island. Little concern is given to the negative environmental impact of these projects, let alone the impact on already degraded local communities.

Government officials deny that haole in-migration, limited housing space, and low wages are the main reasons for island homelessness. The overall political consensus is that homelessness is an individual’s problem that can be remedied with shelters and job placement. In this way the local government has adopted the dominant ideology of the United States, personalizing social inequality. But jobs pay low wages which puts people back where they started, living one paycheck away from living at the beach, the park or a bus stop, becoming an “eye sore” for the tourist paradise, and the pampered global tourist.

There is no talk in the Legislature to ease or regulate the housing grab by wealthy outsiders, particularly on Oahu, where Honolulu is, and Maui, the island most coveted by rich outsiders. The Legislature has no actual plan to increase wages for the tens of thousands of locals and native Hawaiians who toil away in the tourist industry, which by the way, maintained a steady business despite the global economic depression. Unfortunately, the Legislature has begun to rewrite laws addressing the homelessness issue by granting police the power to impound their property, move them away from parks and beaches, and relocate them to the harshest parts of the islands, the very same places to where kanaka maoli, the first Hawaiians, have also been relocated, a 21st century manifestation of reservations for Native Americans and now the indigent.

Cosme Caal is a community activist who recently moved to Hawai’i from the Americas. His interests include political mobilization of Mayans in Guatemala and Los Angeles, and the Pachakutik indigenous political organization in the Andean region.