Glossy photos of Honolulu high-rises grace the pages of magazines as state and city officials trumpet the revitalization of areas like Kakaako and Ala Moana. But if you ask Lila Marantz, a local financial advisor, parts of Honolulu look more like shanty towns overrun with homeless people.

“As I walk downtown every weekday, I see a reality vastly different than what is hyped. I see deplorable situations which I consider assaults to human dignity,” she wrote in a letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “People live in tents in Thomas Square. I have seen women filthy, scantily clad in rags. I have seen drunken dirty men urinating publicly in broad daylight. I see litter on Iolani Palace grounds close to ‘hobo’ camps.”

Marantz is not alone in her outrage. Her missive was one of nearly 100 letters and emails that local residents and visitors sent to Caldwell over a three-month period expressing concerns about the homeless population, which by one estimate has increased 30 percent in the last five years. 

photograph of highlighted letters per richard's request.  STORY BY SOPHIE.  18 nov. 2014. photo CORY LUM.

Most of the letters to the mayor’s office complained about homeless people; some offered suggestions to alleviate homelessness.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for the mayor, said Caldwell has been working to address the concerns.

“The public is demanding action, and this administration has been aggressive in pursuing and implementing policies to permanently house individuals and families experiencing homelessness as well as developing tools to keep public spaces accessible to all,” Broder Van Dyke said by email.

Caldwell has frequently cited letters from tourists complaining about the homeless as giving urgency to the need to solve Honolulu’s growing homeless problem. In September, Civil Beat filed a public records request for three-months worth of those kinds of letters.

The letters, which the city charged $173.75 to produce, were received by the city from early July through early October. Officials say it took four hours to search for the documents and eight hours to review them for possible redactions.

The mayor has made dealing with the homeless situation a priority of his administration, including putting more money into housing and assistance programs while at the same time enforcing nuisance laws aimed at prodding the homeless out of Waikiki, the state’s major tourist hub.

“I’m getting more and more letters from our visitors,” said Caldwell during his State of the City speech in February. “That means someone who visited here, got upset, went home, and instead of unpacking, doing their laundry, and getting back to work, took time to find out who the mayor was, what his address was, and to write him a letter. And that’s deeply troubling.”

“Visitor industry leaders tell Mayor Caldwell that they receive constant complaints from tourists, especially from Asia.” — Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for the mayor

Broder Van Dyke told the Associated Press in September that Caldwell gets several letters every week from tourists, primarily from Asia, complaining about the homeless.

Civil Beat’s review of the letters showed most that came in from July until early October were from local residents. Only seven tourists sent emails or letters to Caldwell, and all of them were from the mainland.

But Broder Van Dyke told Civil Beat by email that the letters and emails only tell “a portion of the story.”

He said the mayor’s office also receives phone calls, hears complaints during meetings and events around town and from the tourist industry.

“In regular meetings, visitor industry leaders tell Mayor Caldwell that they receive constant complaints from tourists, especially from Asia,” Broder Van Dyke wrote. “Many times these visitors will tell the hotel and the hotel passes the information on to the city. A language barrier may prohibit some Asian visitors from writing Mayor Caldwell directly.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for interviews with Caldwell, City Managing Director Ember Shinn or Jun Yang, executive director for the city’s Office of Housing.

Overall, the correspondence is notable for the anger and frustration people express toward the homeless, who were described as “lazy bums” in one missive and “scum of the earth” in another. Some writers, however, proposed solutions or urged Caldwell to take more aggressive action to solve the problem.

Complaints From All Over Oahu

Many of the island’s approximately 1,600 unsheltered homeless have taken up residence in Waikiki and downtown.

That’s prompted people to write to the mayor about homeless families living in the parks and on the sidewalks of Chinatown and Kakaako, harassing visitors and residents in Waikiki and setting up tents in Ala Moana Beach Park.

One email writer who didn’t use his or her full name said tents were proliferating in Ala Moana Beach Park and the homeless could be seen creating “permanent living areas” all over Honolulu:

“There are plenty of homeless roaming the streets with suitcases as if they were dropped off in Hawaii on a one way ticket from the continent. Has anyone investigated this?”

But there were also complaints about homeless people sleeping in hammocks in Kailua Beach Park, hanging out in cars in Kaneohe, sleeping at Haleiwa Beach Park, rummaging around Honolulu International Airport and setting up camp around the bridges near the Hawaii Convention Center.

Kailua resident Claudia Webster wrote to express her frustration about a homeless man living in a parking lot outside her condo.

“He takes up the sidewalk, has numerous shopping carts which he stashes in many places. Today on Sunday, he has his laundry hanging on the fence by the former gas station,” she writes. “Why do we citizens who pay our taxes, buy condos in Kailua, have to look out on this and put up with this?”

Waikiki: ‘Your Street People are Invasive’

Waikiki has been a focal point over how to deal with the homeless. The city has been aggressively enforcing a range of nuisance ordinances, such as laws against public intoxication and panhandling, to prod the homeless out of Waikiki, the hub of Hawaii’s $14 billion tourism industry. Caldwell also ushered through a law in September that bans sitting and lying on sidewalks in Waikiki.

The mayor has coined his strategy for dealing with the homeless “compassionate disruption.” In addition to trying to encourage homeless to leave Waikiki and enter shelters, he’s also urged a spirit of humanitarianism.

Supported by $47 million in funding, the mayor is working to place 400 chronically homeless into long-term housing. There are about 500 chronically homeless living on the streets of Oahu, defined by their long-term homelessness and struggles with mental illness and drug and alcohol dependence. 

The correspondence reflects some of the tensions over the homeless in Waikiki that have played out publicly for months in hearings in front of the City Council and in the media.

Numerous residents wrote to complain about homeless people aggressively asking for money and relieving themselves in public. And the tourists who did take time to write were often strident about the impact the homeless had on their vacations.

Homeless man sleep Waikiki beach desperate

A homeless man sleeping in Waikiki in June.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Michael Springhetti wrote to the mayor that he had resided in Waikiki for 20 years and had “never seen it so bad.” He said he was assaulted by a “homeless, psychotic person” recently while walking his dog in the Beachwalk/Lewers area.

“Luckily for me, I work with the mentally ill and I am physically fit and was able to restrain him in the middle of Kalia Road until (the police) arrived,” he wrote.

Springhetti isn’t the only person to complain about the homeless acting aggressively.

Roger Fong wrote that he was walking in Waikiki with his in-laws from the mainland when a homeless woman asked him for money and “actually poked her finger in my chest.”

Fong said he agreed with the mayor about the need to move the homeless out of Waikiki and away from the visibility of tourists. He said the homeless are taking advantage of Hawaii’s spirit of aloha.

Peter Elliott wrote that he worked hard to save up for a place in Waikiki and described the homeless as destroying the community.

I’ve “been shocked at how the, mostly voluntarily, homeless seize the benches and tables at Waikiki, sit on sidewalks with ‘I want pot signs,’ wake me and many others up at all hours to steal bottles and cans from my building’s dumpster, roam around with stolen supermarket carriages, and destroy the sense of community in Waikiki by making people think that anyone saying hello to them is going to ask for money,” he writes.

Joey Rivera, a tourist who was staying at the Marriott in Waikiki, said he planned to go shopping for 10 days, but decided to go elsewhere because of the homeless.

Parts “of the blocks smell like urine, you have people blocking the sidewalk to the point they are purposely creating a choke-point were people are forced to engage with them, and the smell of defecation is overwhelming,” Rivera wrote. “Your street people are invasive to the point that they make shopping a bad experience.”

At a recent press conference, Caldwell said that since he signed a law banning sitting and lying on sidewalks in Waikiki, conditions in the tourist district have improved significantly.

The Honolulu City Council recently passed a similar ordinance that would expand the ban to other commercial areas throughout Oahu, which is awaiting the mayor’s signature.

Homeless Backlash

Much of the correspondence expresses anger toward the homeless, similar to when Hawaii state Rep. Tom Brower took a sledgehammer to homeless people’s shopping carts last year.

One local resident who didn’t give a full name wrote a detailed two-page letter to the mayor outlining a more aggressive approach to the homeless and encouraging the mayor’s plan to build a temporary homeless encampment on Sand Island, which the writer referred to favorably as a “jail facility.”

“It’s bliss for these people, no responsibilities, no worries,” the resident wrote. “I don’t care if joe schmoe lost his pension and was laid off, there are jobs out there somewhere, maybe not in Hawaii, that’s not my concern.” 

Mark Fukuchi urged the mayor to quickly work to get rid of the “unsightly, smelly, garbage collecting individuals living in make-shift structures on Kalakaua Avenue between Fern Street and Kapiolani Boulevard.”

Complaints about the homeless moving to Hawaii from the mainland also sprinkled the letters.

“It is a very big problem because some of them are from the Mainland United States of America! Why should local people pay for these bums and lazy people. The taxpayers are upset and angry!” Matthew Nagai wrote.

While many residents have expressed fears that mainland homeless are flocking to Hawaii, only 8 percent of those that are homeless have resided in Hawaii for less than a year, according to the 2013 Homeless Service Utilization Report. At least half of the homeless have lived in Hawaii for 20 or more years.

Matthew Doherty, director of national initiatives for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told Civil Beat that he hasn’t seen any data that suggests Hawaii has more homeless from out-of-state than any other state.

“Why should local people pay for these bums and lazy people. The taxpayers are upset and angry!” — Matthew Nagai, letter writer

Micronesians, who represent a significant portion of the homeless population that has set up tents near Kakaako Waterfront Park, also didn’t escape scrutiny.

Carolyn Winston wrote that she is active in one of the churches that provides meals and support to the Kakaako homeless.

“The way I see it, there are so many Micronesian people with all their children there and most of these people are from Chuuk,” Winston wrote. “I have heard from social workers that families from Chuuk walk off the airplane and immediately go to the shelters seeking housing. Do they think that we will immediately put them up in their own apartment?”

Winston urges Caldwell to visit the governor of Chuuk and “ask him to please tell his people to stay home.”

Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless program coordinator, says there is a lot of misinformation circulating about why people are homeless. He pointed out that many of the people living on the street are suffering from mental illness, are self medicating with drugs and alcohol, have medical problems or are struggling with other challenges.

“I think someone who is unkept, who is disheveled, someone who is really struggling on the streets, for some it elicits compassion, for others it elicits the opposite,” he said. “I think our best response is to really look beyond the surface and think, what can we do to end this situation.”

Kippen said that the influx of letters to Caldwell may have been prompted by the public debate that has in part played out in the media as city lawmakers consider new laws and strategies to tackle the homeless problem.

He said he gets calls from people angry at the homeless and wanting them arrested, but also receives calls from people at the other end of the spectrum urging more compassion.

“I think it’s unfortunate when people believe that someone who is really in that most unstable situation is somehow scum of the earth,” he said. “To me it is not helpful and it doesn’t comport with anything that I believe, and I think a lot of other reasonable, thoughtful people believe.”

Channeling FDR

While most of the letters and emails complained about the homeless and urged the mayor to do more to address the problem, about one-tenth were from people writing to offer advice and possible solutions.

One writer who didn’t fully identify himself suggested paying the homeless $500 to attend a three-week, military-style boot camp that would make them more capable of finding jobs.

The boot camps would be “only for people living on the streets, not just for anyone. I think otherwise many would jump at … this opportunity.”

Brenda Beel suggested using the lower part of Aloha Stadium to host up to 5,000 homeless people and converting containers from Young Brothers or Matson into trailer homes.

The “stadium is only filled during the Pro-Game,” she wrote, referring to the annual NFL Pro Bowl that often takes place in Honolulu. “Why waste our money? Help the hopeless and homeless.”

“Why waste our money? Help the hopeless and homeless.” — Brenda Beel, suggesting using part of Aloha Stadium to house the homeless

The stadium, which also hosts University of Hawaii football games, has been criticized for being underutilized.

Others suggested that the city start an “adopt-a-homeless campaign,” build a “village” solely for the homeless and tighten Hawaii’s borders by turning people away at the airport if they can’t prove they have a job, money or place to stay.

Roy Tanouye suggested rekindling former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration, the Depression-era work program designed to help lift people out of poverty. The program employed some 8.5 million people who built and renovated bridges, roads, public parks and other infrastructure.

To encourage the homeless to join in the new WPA, Tanouye suggested leveraging their shopping carts: If the homeless don’t have receipts for their carts, he said, then the city should charge them unless they agree to join the work program. He also suggested withholding food stamps and “other freebies” from homeless people who refuse to participate.

Carole Brooks, a retired real estate agent, suggested building homeless camps in the country with “cute grass huts,” equipped with a kitchen, food, restrooms, nurses and social workers.

“Just do it,” she wrote. “Before they start rioting.”

About the Author