Rep. Tom Brower’s ill-advised venture into the flourishing homeless camp in Kakaako took a nasty turn late Monday when two teens gave him a thrashing for taking pictures of them despite their requests that he stop.
While Brower says the attack was unprovoked, he also acknowledges that he put his camera away, pulling it out once again to document the incident between him and the youths. The teens’ claim that they only wanted Brower to respect their privacy is lent more credibility by the fact that they came forward quickly after the incident became news, apologized and returned Brower’s camera, once they learned he is a state legislator whose nearby district once included Kakaako — information Brower oddly didn’t volunteer to them during the confrontation.
“We asked him nicely to please stop taking pictures. He told us, ‘Just back off,’ ” Isaiah Totoa, 17, told Civil Beat’s Rui Kenaya.
Added nearby tent resident Tracy Martin, “You got to understand what these kids go through here every day. They got to go to school and face questions like this, too. It’s not fair to them.”
It’s another example of an unorthodox approach to homelessness from a state representative last in the news for personally taking a sledgehammer to 30 shopping carts used by homeless folks. If fact-finding and documentation were his aim in this latest gambit, why not go in broad daylight, accompanied by staff and homeless advocates (as Sen. Will Espero and Rep. John Mizuno did Tuesday) and perhaps even media and law enforcement?
We don’t doubt Brower’s concern over the issue, but we’re beginning to be concerned over his judgment.
This is not to say that the violent actions of a couple of teen boys were acceptable. But in the terrible circumstances in which these youths find themselves, one can understand a fiercely felt need to hang on to their last shreds of privacy and dignity and their outrage over an individual who to them seemed insensitive to those concerns.
But all of this obscures the real issues in Kakaako, which have precious little to do with a Monday night fracas in which no one was seriously hurt. Monday’s incident grew out of conditions in Kakaako that have been directly caused by Honolulu’s elected leaders, that are only getting worse and that will cause more frequently occurring mini-crises the longer they go unaddressed.
As has been reported and commented upon numerous times by Civil Beat, Honolulu City Council members and Mayor Kirk Caldwell were well aware last fall that without temporary shelter, enactment of their controversial ban on sitting or lying on city sidewalks in selected areas had the potential to cause major problems. They approved the ban anyway, and the direct result is that several hundred residents now live in tents, under tarps and in cardboard shanties in Kakaako.
The City Council’s belligerent recent expansion of sit-lie — against the advice of attorneys and overriding a mayoral veto — threatens to grow the challenge in Kakaako and sprout new ones in other areas. And as the weather warms this summer, the deplorable conditions on the street are becoming worse, more difficult for residents to bear, and yet remain the only option many see for themselves.
If any good came from Brower’s swashbuckling photo session, it may be that it increases pressure on city leaders to put their backs into this challenge by developing a stronger sense of urgency and a greater commitment to putting budgeted resources to work more quickly.
City leaders are expected to announce on Thursday the service provider for a new temporary housing project for the homeless on Sand Island. Progress, yes, but painfully modest. Honolulu could increase the immediate scope of that work 10-fold and still not come close to meeting the need, so long has it dithered on this priority.
If any good came from Brower’s swashbuckling photo session, it may be that it increases pressure on city leaders to put their backs into this challenge by developing a stronger sense of urgency and a greater commitment to putting the resources budgeted for these needs to work more quickly.
Gov. David Ige ought to feel the pressure, too: He recently extended the employment agreement of the state homeless coordinator by a scant month, signaling a continued lack of sufficient interest in an issue that is exploding all around Hawaii. The recently released homeless census showed their numbers grew statewide by 10 percent last year, nowhere more so than on Hawaii Island, where the homeless population jumped 43 percent to more than 1,240.
But some are instead using the Brower incident to call for a bigger police force in Kakaako — inexplicable, given that criminal charges are unlikely to be filed in this matter. There is no evidence that tourists or others have been endangered in the area and no real reason to think they might be. Limited police resources should be invested where they’re needed, not used as political window dressing.
And let’s be clear: To an extent there is danger in the area, it is specific to the homeless who live there in unsanitary conditions, scorched by temperatures consistently in the 90s, buffeted by occasional summer rains and vulnerable to any number of disease outbreaks that are common in such camps.
Others are calling for the Kakaako encampment to be demolished. Assuming the hundreds of living and breathing people who reside there won’t simply vanish into thin air, bulldozing their makeshift shelters would lack a degree of basic humanity that we ought to require in our public policies.
Carolina Jesus understands that. As Civil Beat’s Rui Kenaya reported recently in a fascinating profile, the proprietor of homeless shelters serving 63 people in six homes around Honolulu earns high marks for her simple, faith-based approach to meeting the needs of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Non-profits such as hers play a valuable role in addressing homelessness, and as community members, we ought to be concerned with how we support them to expand and deepen their work.
Brower’s two assailants have already apologized to the legislator. The City Council and mayor ought to quickly follow up with their own apologies for having allowed and helped to create an environment in which such an incident was in some ways inevitable.
And we hope that once he’s had an opportunity to heal, Rep. Brower will make his way back to Kakaako, accompanied by others who share his interest in helping the homeless living there. Photography equipment is no more required than a sledge hammer; eyes to see, ears to hear and an open heart might be more useful tools to understand what’s happening in Kakaako and what the area really needs.