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Homelessness has become such a part of life in Honolulu that we’ve gotten used to it. It’s hard to drive more than a few minutes without seeing another cluster of raggedy tents or someone sleeping on a sidewalk.
But do we ever stop and wonder about these people? Who they are and what brought them to this point?
The first time Jessica Terrell saw the tents tucked into the woods next to the Waianae Boat Harbor, she got that tingly deja vu feeling. She needed to take a closer look. So she walked deeper into the woods and knew she had to write about this place and the people she saw.
Jessica, who is Civil Beat’s education reporter, grew up homeless. As she explains in her introductory piece that you’ll read Monday, she was instantly transported back to a time when she was the one that other kids were throwing rocks at, when she was the one sleeping on the beach, when she was the one living out of a battered van or on a ratty-looking raft her family built from scrap.
Jessica Terrell, at age 8, with her dad, Poppa Neutrino, in Red Square in Moscow, 1992.
Screenshot: Random Lunacy
Born in Mexico to parents who were Beat generation bohemians seeking a life free from the constraints of the Establishment, Jessica’s crib was a cardboard box in the back window of a car. But the family’s vagabond existence really took off when her father almost died from a rabid dog bite. He wandered into the Mexican desert for a spell — his family thought he’d gone off to die — and came back uniquely enlightened with a desire to raise his five children in a world that had no boundaries, physical or intellectual.
He changed his name from David Pearlman to Poppa Neutrino and organized his wife and kids into a family band known as The Flying Neutrinos. They spent several months traveling with a Mexican circus and later toured Europe playing — and living — on the streets. Living hand-to-mouth in the U.S., they played the street corners of New Orleans and the sidewalks of New York. They built several large rafts out of scraps they scrounged up from anywhere they could find them, amazingly sailing one across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland.
You can read more about Jessica’s childhood in Poppa Neutrino’s obituary, published by the New York Times in 2011 after he died at age 77. Alec Wilkinson, a writer for the New Yorker, first chronicled their lives in an article for the magazine and then wrote a book, “The Happiest Man in the World.” The family also was the subject of documentary film called “Random Lunacy,” the title taken from an offhand remark Poppa Neutrino made about how people must view his own life.
Weird and crazy, right? Which are two things that come to mind when we drive by all those homeless people who we don’t really ever get to know.
So when Jessica pitched us on the project of spending time at the Waianae Boat Harbor camp and telling the story of these people as, simply, people in our community living a different lifestyle, we realized it would be a story told with heart and soul and a unique insight.
At first Jessica just dropped by the camp and introduced herself around. But it quickly became clear that to truly get to know the people who have built this unusual home for themselves, she needed to spend as much time as she could with them.
So, being the daughter of an unconventional man who taught his kids that if you want something in life you just have to go for it, Jessica gave up her Waikiki apartment and moved to Waianae for several months, the camp now just a few minutes away. She began spending most of her days and evenings there. Sometimes she brought ice for people who needed it, sometimes iced coffee to share during an interview or a regular card game.
She spent her 32nd birthday in the camp. It was Mexican Independence Day, so she made enchiladas for some of the residents.
Jessica Terrell, at age 11, talks about life on the road in the 2007 documentary, “Random Lunacy.”
Screenshot: Random Lunacy
Every night, she wrote her thoughts and observations in what she calls her “camp journal,” and we’ve dropped some of those entries into this series.
Photographer Cory Lum joined Jessica for several weeks of the project, shooting video and still photos that capture some of the most intimate moments of daily life in a homeless village that can barely be seen from the road.
As you might imagine, you can’t just walk into a situation like this and force people to talk to you. A long-term reporting effort requires spending the time to build trust. It takes a lot of listening, a good deal of conversation, and sometimes just fading into the background of life.
In this story, there are plenty of people at the camp who we believe have very good reasons for not wanting us to use their names, be photographed or let people know they are there. Some are trying to escape an abusive spouse. Others are protective of their children. Many are truly embarrassed to be in this situation.
You’ll see that we used some names but not others. In some cases we used first names but not last. We felt telling their stories was more important than revealing their full identities.
“The Harbor,” which is what most people call what is now the state’s largest homeless encampment, is a three-part, multimedia series that begins Monday.
Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.