To say that homelessness is a major problem in Hawaii is like saying that it often rains in Seattle — a gross understatement.

Honolulu has been cited as one of the cities with highest rates of homelessness per capita in the United States with several thousand houseless individuals calling the city’s sidewalks, alleys, doorways and even parks home night after night.

Anyone who has read a piece or seen a documentary about homelessness here is familiar with the usual litany of data about the costs and prices of living on Oahu let alone throughout the state: Housing costs are expensive, since homes cost over $700,000; rental costs are high, since you aren’t likely to find a room let alone an apartment that will go for less than a $1000 here: and food prices are significant etc.

Let’s cut to the chase: Can homelessness be solved in Hawaii? 

As conditions are currently constituted in this state, absolutely not.

Why then is this the case?

Justin Phillips, outreach field manager for the Institute for Human Services, came to Kakaako Waterfront Park before the recent sweep to let homeless campers know about available housing and social services. The author argues that homelessness can not be solved with sweeps. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The initial problem in dealing with homelessness is the perception gap between the reality of homeless people and their condition and what can only be termed the outright fantasies perpetuated in varied forms of media and by lawmakers and other parties.

These promulgated views can only rightly be termed propaganda. It is this propaganda that has helped transmogrify and transform the mindset not only of policy makers but of  a number of average citizens into seeking what essentially can be termed “out of sight, out of mind” proposals and initiatives that solve nothing but least give the appearance of being pro-active.

The infamous sit-lie ban here in Honolulu serves as Exhibit A as evidence of this approach.

It’s Always In The News

Crafting effective propaganda to be wielded against the homeless in Hawaii begins with the news media, more specifically the broadcast news stations. The subject of homelessness in Hawaii has steadily led to more news segments in the past few years than likely occurred in previous decades.

While some people might feel reporting on homeless is actually a positive step in trying to alleviate the issue, what they don’t realize is that the continued images of tents and makeshift dwellings broadcast to the voice over of reporters and anchors creates and reinforces images of homeless people as simply a problem, an obstacle, a nuisance to be rid of.

It matters not what tone and what tenor the reporters take on the segments, the images and the context often say it all. As the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt.

Then you have local TV news specials that serve as more blatant vehicles for propaganda like “No Room in Paradise” and the more recent “Prescribing Hope.” In fact, “Prescribing Hope” looks at the mentally ill homeless and the half hour special was basically a promotion of pharmacology as a way to deal with homelessness.

The homeless person — regardless of their actual state — becomes a symbol and a metaphor for disease.

This really comes as no surprise since the assumption and archetype of mental illness is crucial to any examination of homelessness. Thus the homeless person — regardless of their actual state — becomes a symbol and a metaphor for disease. Thus the proliferation of homelessness is a contagion that must be dealt with since it  is “infecting” the parks, streets and neighborhoods of the city.

Next comes other types of media like social media where individuals are varying types often discuss and perpetuates the usual cliches about Hawaii homeless:  Some are largely single men from the mainland that come here to enjoy the beaches and soak up the scenery but care nothing about finding a place to live or holding down a job.

Less interesting to the online critics of Hawaii’s homeless are  the facts: that a number of homeless are local born and raised and some have spouses and children joining them on the streets, that more than a few were leading stable lives working jobs and living in apartments and houses until financial misfortune radically changed their lives, that more than a few are not alcoholics or drug addicts.

Notice these three steps: introduce the subject as solely a problem that must be dealt with, generalize the extent of the problem linking it to serious issues like mental illness and essentially conceptualizing it as a disease that must be eliminated and then type the homeless as a certain suspect class or classes of individuals who engage in certain kinds of behaviors.

Thin Gruel To Taxpayers

It is the promulgation and promotion of this three-tiered propaganda effort that has led to “compassionate disruption” (a rather callous and distasteful phrase), the sit-lie ban and homeless sweeps of places such as Kakaako Park.

Why engage in this propaganda?

Essentially, it is to turn the populace at large against the homeless and to have residents support measures like sit-lie ban laws that members of the Honolulu City Council can offer as thin gruel to taxpayers. Just the idea that a politician actually “worked” to ensure that some measure was put in place to deal with homeless people will at least make that policy maker look as if they tried to make a difference especially when he or she comes up for reelection.

Thus homelessness on Oahu or any other island cannot be solved with police sweeps and sit-lie laws. Any chance at a solution has to come from treating homeless people as people and citizens not a problem, as people in need of help not an obstacle  that needs to be removed and as individuals with lives and perhaps skills and not as strangers who need to be shooed off.

Dismantle the fantasies and deal with the reality.

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