A couple of weeks ago there was an incursion in Hawaii Kai. It was a shopping cart.
The abandoned cart, filled with who-knows-what, sat next to a busy bus stop on a block-long field across the street from the Hawaii Kai Drive entrance to Maunalua Bay Beach Park.
Out-of-placeness is part of that parcel’s history. Once a year there’s a carnival there. It’s a garish contrast to the natural beauty close by. But carnivals are supposed to be garish. Being out of place is part of their charm. And, well, it’s only there for two weeks.
A few years ago, people in the area got together to stop Kamehameha Schools from building a strip mall on that site. They successfully argued that it would be out of place.
But the shopping cart was different. Anyone who saw it, certainly in my Hawaii Kai neighborhood, would assume it belonged to a homeless person.
Making it a totally different story. That cart was much more than simply out of place.
A homeless person sleeps inside a tent along Beretania Street.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
That’s how I reacted when I first spotted the cart. I immediately thought homeless person. That made me feel uneasy and anxious — me, a guy who has written sympathetically about the homeless, sitting in my car making worried assumptions.
You hardly see any homeless people in Hawaii Kai, and when you do, they are solitary individuals walking down the highway, sneaking a quick nap on the pedestrian overpass near Koko Head Elementary School, or briefly sitting at an outdoor table next to Starbucks. No tents, no battered bikes, no one blocking the sidewalk.
Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind.
Hawaii Kai has an active unofficial homeless surveillance system. One of our state legislators has tried to count them. The security guards at the shopping center keep their eyes open for sleepers in the underground parking lot or for disheveled folks who don’t seem to have a purpose.
But the strongest part of this system is the part that is the least official — ordinary citizens like me. Somebody at the Starbucks says, “He looks homeless,” and it’s a signal to be watchful, wary, and to keep your distance.
So, people out here only experience the homeless away from their Hawaii Kai homes. They see them in the mini-tent villages in Moiliili, the parks in Kakaako, or the storefronts downtown.
This is fleeting, secondhand experience, kind of vicarious, kind of abstract. But it is powerful enough to trigger our visions of intrusion and cultivate our own stories about the homeless.
So what would it be like if that anonymous person with the cart actually settled in that field? We can only imagine. And that’s all it takes.
The story of the cart is a story we fill in for ourselves with no personal knowledge of the character but plenty of motivation to create the chronicle. That motivation comes from “out of place.”
In theory this could be a long and complicated story. How did the cart get there? What happened to the person? What’s that homeless person really like? What’s her story?
In practice, though, the story we are likely to tell is not character driven at all. The story’s main driver isn’t “What’s she doing here?” It’s “Why is she intruding?”
The writer Jia Tolentino recently described immigrants as “uninterpreted bodies moving through space.” She meant that they are denied their own story. Others — the rest of us — interpret their stories for them. We fill the slate that we’ve defined as blank.
For the homeless that’s also the case. When that cart-pusher intruded into Hawaii Kai, it became our story to make up.
Would it have mattered if she had stayed with the cart? Would people in the area try to find out more about who she is and what her life is like? I doubt it. The absolutely key thing is that she had intruded.
The cart is gone. One day someone spilled the contents and rifled through them. The cart disappeared. The pile that was left stayed for a few more days. Then it also was gone. Incursion stymied.
I don’t want to appear all high morally muck-a-muck, so let me end with my own personal story about all this. You can decide how much it would be like yours.
The sense of intrusiveness and anxiety grabbed me as soon as I saw the cart in that field. I’d like to say that astonishes me, but it doesn’t. I’m an “Us”. The cart was a “Them.”
I am not proud of this. I certainly don’t defend it. But I have to remind myself that writing sympathetically about the homeless requires that I encounter my own truth and understand the luxury that distancing gives me.
Some neighborhoods are far more able to distance themselves than others. Hawaii Kai is one of those. Some of that is simply because of physical distance.
But I think a part of it is because homeless people think they would not be comfortable out here. Like the rest of us, homeless people desire a sense of place.
There is a grassy area along the curb running along one side of the park next to Hawaii Kai’s Koko Head Elementary School. A public bathroom and water fountain are a few steps away. Not all that different from the place where the homeless pitch their tents at Stadium Park along King Street.
Thought experiment: what do you think would happen if homeless people encamped there in Hawaii Kai?
The stories we tend to tell about the homeless as we interpret their lives for them tend to be about dependency, craziness, addiction, or stubbornness.
There is more than a germ of truth to such stories. Some are even sympathetic. But they are also insidious because they concentrate on the differences between them and us.
And distance makes the heart grow colder.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.