There are places in Hawaii where the homeless crisis deserves the emergency declaration put in place recently by Gov. David Ige. The Harbor isn’t one of them.

As Civil Beat readers have learned this week through the exceptional, experiential reporting of Jessica Terrell, The Harbor is home to about 250 people and 100 pets at any given time, all residing on a few acres of public property between the Waianae Boat Harbor and Waianae High School, bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean. It’s the largest encampment of its kind in Hawaii.

It’s almost a misnomer to describe as “homeless” many of those who live in this funky, handmade, 10-year-old neighborhood in the woods. Using the resources at their disposal, their own ingenuity and the help of friends and neighbors at The Harbor, they have created homes. Not spaces that many of us would want to call home or, frankly, that would be the first choice of those living there. But homes, nonetheless.

More than that, they’ve created something that often eludes residents in the gleaming high rises of Kakaako or the million-dollar homes of Hawaii Kai or the university neighborhood of Manoa — community. A sense of caring for and looking out for one another, in good times and bad.

The resident of this homeless shelter in The Harbor carefully constructed a rock wall. Added touches include potted plants and a meticulously swept dirst yard.
The resident of this homeless shelter in The Harbor carefully constructed a rock wall. Added touches include potted plants and a meticulously swept dirst yard. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nevertheless, residents there are nervous these days. The governor’s emergency proclamation and his announced intentions to look at homeless camps in Wahiawa, Waimanalo and Waianae have led some to fear that residents of The Harbor might face the same sweeps that cleared nearly 300 homeless individuals and families out of Kakaako in recent months.

State Homelessness Coordinator Scott Morishige sought to allay those concerns in an Editorial Board discussion with Civil Beat last month, saying it would be counterproductive to sweep The Harbor. Instead, the focus needs to be on creating a pathway for Harbor residents to attain permanent homes. And that’s exactly what most of them really want.

Meanwhile, other interested parties are circling, some with their own agenda focused not on the needs of the residents of The Harbor, but on the prized land on which their settlement sits: a gorgeous parcel jutting out into the Pacific, with the picturesque Waianae Range rising just inland.

Representative Jo Jordan speaks to reporters at the Waianae Boat Harbor about homeless issues and issues on the waianae side. 19 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
State Rep. Jo Jordan Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Rep. Jo Jordan, whose district includes Waianae, has her eye on the site for a project that she says would have “educational components.” But she won’t give further details or say whose project it is. Meanwhile, though, she’d like to find ways to get the residents of The Harbor to leave of their own accord.

“I truly think that compassionate disruption is a good tool,” Jordan said. “If we continue to do the compassionate disruption, maybe something would trigger in the individual to say ‘I’m tired of moving, I’m tired of losing all my personal belongings constantly.’”

State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro
State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro 

We reject the idea that constantly having one’s few belongings taken has anything to do with compassion. We much prefer the approaches suggested by state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, whose district also includes The Harbor.

First, Shimabukuro favors a rule change that would allow people to camp legally on Hawaiian Home Lands while building some form of alternative housing — perhaps small, off-the-grid dwellings. Secondly, she would legalize trailer parks and possibly explore creation of campgrounds.

Any of those ideas would be a better fit for residents of The Harbor than the repetitive aggravation of so-called “compassionate” disruption and loss of belongings. Shimabukuro shows she gets it when she says, “Hopefully, there can be some solution that suits this population.”

Other ideas are floating about, some more plausible than others. Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board member Ken Koike, for instance, would like to transform The Harbor into a restored Hawaiian village, where current residents continue to live and visitors could learn about Hawaiian culture. The joint living space-cultural center would feature self-sufficient farming and other traditional subsistence practices, such as fishing, and traditional Hawaiian hales, Koike says.

As Terrell reported, a member of a Hawaiian civic club spoke to one of The Harbor leaders recently about a development concept that would allow some residents to stay, though details of that plan were thin as well. It’s possible the idea is connected to a query the Department of Land and Natural Resources recently received about leasing the land. But no formal proposal has been submitted.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Before the Department of Land and Natural Resources considers proposals from any of the state and local leaders and developers interested in the site, though, two ideas deserve strong consideration.

First, the old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” certainly applies here. The state and our local municipalities have abjectly failed in their responsibilities regarding affordable housing and housing the homeless. The individuals living at The Harbor are certainly among the nearly 7,200 homeless people represented in the point-in-time count last January, but they are meeting their own housing needs in ways that have eluded thousands of other homeless folks and with only minor negative impacts on businesses, neighborhoods and others on Oahu.

The community they’ve established not only deserves respect, but consideration as to how it can be part of the solution going forward.

Second, given that the community’s leaders and residents have shown this level of responsibility, they ought to be engaged in deep dialogue about their future and the future of The Harbor. There is knowledge in The Harbor that may be of great help in meeting homeless needs elsewhere. If The Harbor goes away, that knowledge must not go with it.

Life doesn’t always deal the hand we want. How we adjust, improvise and move forward says a lot about each of us.

Having drawn particularly challenging hands, the residents of The Harbor nonetheless set an admirable daily example we can all learn from: Though they’ve lost their homes, they haven’t lost themselves. And they haven’t lost each other.

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