When people plan a trip to the island paradise of Hawaii, the number one destination is the tourist town of Waikiki, the island of Oahu’s main collection of resort hotels. The city features world class dining and shopping just blocks from surfing and sunbathing at the foot of the Diamond Head volcano. There is one feature the travel brochures don’t like to talk about. Hawaii has the highest number of homeless people in the nation.
The stench from the homeless camp near Diamond Head lookout is enough to make Jen Tema of Waikiki hold her breath when jogging past. “When it’s dead wind, you can barely walk by. It’s a shame because this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Fearing her safety, Jen quit jogging at night. Her son no longer surfs there because of feces, used condoms and needles. Ms. Tema is not the only one complaining. The calls coming from residents and businesses all across the city prompted Councilman Trevor Ozawa to propose legislation in response. His solution: a squad of armed park rangers.
Under a proposed amendment to the City Charter, park rangers would serve under the City’s Parks and Recreation department after getting training from weapon carrying officers of the State’s Land and Natural Resources department. The plan is for the armed rangers to patrol Waikiki’s parks to enforce laws ranging from the prevention of illegal camping and living in cars, to littering and smoking. “We continue to see enforcement issues, continue to have issues with our homeless population in our parks, and need to make our children’s safety a priority,” Ozawa said. “We need to continue exploring ways of keeping our park users safe and our facilities free of vandalism and destruction.”
There is a lot of support for the idea in the community, but the City’s Mayor, Kirk Caldwell, does not see the need for a “second police force.” Caldwell says he wants to work with Ozawa on solving the problem in a way that uses less resources. One thing they all agree on is that they are determined to address “the issue of people getting too comfortable in one place.”
Hawaii began a get tough enforcement policy directed at the homeless a couple years ago with laws banning sitting or lying on sidewalks. Laws against pushing shopping carts and making unattended belongings subject to confiscation were designed to send a message that homeless were not welcome where the tourists could see them. The city also created programs designed to get the homeless off the street. Either into shelters or back to the mainland with money provided by the tourist industry. The result was dramatic. Panhandlers disappeared along with the stacks of clothes and tents. Shuffling aimless people no longer sprawl on sidewalks, benches or in doorways. Social workers praise the program saying the “specter of enforcement makes it easier to persuade the homeless to try a night in a shelter bed or enter a drug treatment program.”
While a significant number of homeless took the city up on their offer of shelter or a free ticket back to where they were from, many refused, and disappeared into alleys, dark corners of public parks or into the “dense greenery up Diamond Head Road.” According to one homeless advocate, Victor Geminiani, “You see tents going up everywhere. It’s just a matter of Whack-a-Mole.”
Dan Foster has been living on the streets for a while. “People moved because they were being harassed. Between dealing with cops and legal authorities, they’d rather just go so they don’t have to deal with it. I think it’s a violation of our constitutional rights, our right to sit places and sleep where we choose. But you know what? I understand. There’s a lot going on out here.” Referring to the law forbidding sitting or lying down on sidewalks, Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell says “Sit-lie is not about homelessness, sit-lie is about commerce. It’s about keeping sidewalks open for people to do business.”
Even with the best efforts of city administrators to encourage homeless people to seek shelter, enough have chosen to decline that they remain a serious problem. Already chased from the streets and beaches, the homeless resorted to sheltering in parks. With the city making it clear they will no longer be tolerated there, whether the armed rangers appear or not, the question remains where do they go?
One solution may already exist. About 30 miles from Honolulu, near the town of Waianae, “Pu’uhonua o Waianae” (Refuge of Waianae) is the largest camp of homeless in Hawaii. Over 200 people live in the camp founded 13 years ago by cocaine addict Twinkle Borge, who lost her twins in pregnancy. After ten years of sobriety she is administrator and matriarch of the camp. “Pu’uhonua is an ancient Hawaiian term for a place of refuge, or a sacred place where miscreants can find forgiveness and a clean slate,” Borge says. “This is my home, if I had property, I would still want to stay in a tent. Even when I stay home with my dad, I sleep on the back porch.”
Andria Tupola, a neighboring district representative says, “The way forward is to embrace their way of thinking.” The camp as it sits right now is not “sustainable or sanitary,” but Tupola agrees the best idea is to find a solution allowing the campers to keep the “low-cost, communal style of living they desire.” Efforts are ongoing to secure a land lease which will allow Borge’s encampment to become “a sustainable Pu’uhonua community.” A feasibility study on allowing these safe zones will be made by analysts over the coming year. One solution being tested now for homeless veterans in Phoenix, AZ could help provide a viable solution here as well. Project Build Us Hope shows how low footprint micro-houses combine the benefits of low cost shelter with solar power, gray water recycling, edible landscape and other sustainable features.