We are all confronted by the escalating rate of homelessness in our community. The number of people living on sidewalks has grown to the point that they become homeless communities in our midst. Our canals are lined with tents and shelters of the dispossessed. Federal officials declare they have never seen such a state and repeatedly use the word “crisis” to describe it.

How has our dear Hawaii descended to a point where this level of homelessness, once never seen in our culture, has become the new normal? How do we take steps to bring healing to this open sore in Paradise? How do we deal with our frustrations and anger?

HPD Sgt Deric Valoroso checks if anyone is in their tent to hand out a written warning at Makai Gateway Park in Kakaako. 1 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A Honolulu Police Department officer checks on homeless occupants of an encampment in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are obviously no simple one-step answers. What has been going through my mind is to view homelessness as an amazing opportunity for our community to reaffirm our core culture and character. We need to embrace the homeless, particularly homeless families and children, as a gift to practice our aloha and malama in ways that strengthen our communal commitment to what is pono!

I have seen glimpses of this approach through the efforts of many churches to feed and shelter the needy. I have been encouraged by the positive responses of our community in the recruitment, training and placement of those seeking jobs and a path of sustainability. I am inspired by organizations that stand ready to help build houses for families and rehab units in low-income housing facilities if given the chance.

Without being Pollyanna about it, I believe the “crisis” of homelessness can bring a community awakening to the heart of aloha that is in our DNA.

We need our policy makers to help fuel a rethinking of homelessness, but we should not wait for them to do it for all of us.

Unfortunately, at least 31 cities nationwide have passed laws that restrict or prohibit food-sharing in public places, meaning those who continue to feed the homeless without following various restrictions such as obtaining permits (often for a fee), could be fined or go to jail. Fortunately for us, Hawai‘i has not yet passed such a law. Those who passed these laws believe the myth that feeding the homeless enables them to remain homeless (as opposed to the real reasons, such as lack of affordable housing, lack of job opportunity, mental health or physical disability).

We need our policy makers to help fuel a rethinking of homelessness, but we should not wait for them to do it for all of us. We can organize early education programs for homeless young children, we can provide places where homeless adults can get training and preparation for employment, we can coordinate health services beyond its present state, and we can give hope to the hopeless and meaning and focus to our frustrations with the present situation.

The thought that homelessness is an opportunity is a seed that needs to be planted and cultivated in our minds and actions. It might grow into a collective return to our core community values.

Are we ready to risk it?

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Jan E. Hanohano Dill
    Jan E. Hanohano Dill is a Native Hawaiian dedicated to helping communities become healthy and resilient. In 1997, he formed the non-profit organization Partners in Development Foundation, and in 1998, the Consortium for Hawaii Ecological Engineering Education, now known as Malama Aina Foundation. Dill’s opinions and views do not necessarily reflect the vision and policies of PIDF or MAF.