While change is inevitable, some of the changes taking place in Hawaii are deeply disturbing.

Homelessness has always existed in Hawaii, but the chronic homelessness that erupted in the last two decades and still persists is truly a modern challenge.

The most alarming elements of homelessness in Hawaii seem to be 1) homeless people who are not from Hawaii and have no ties to the islands, and 2) homeless people who suffer from drug addiction and/or mental illness.

There is no panacea. The paths to homelessness are as diverse as the people of Hawaii themselves, so it is essential to develop a big toolbox of methods to help the homeless.

An elderly woman walks past tents located along Beretania Street across from Aala Park with tents and a shopping cart full of garbage. 4 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

An elderly woman walks past tents along Beretania Street across from Aala Park with tents and a shopping cart full of garbage.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In many cases, especially when addressing the Hawaiian houseless population, we should find ways to create safe spaces with adequate utilities that allow pu‘uhonua, sanctuaries, to exist safely and peacefully. (Hawaii is “home” for all Hawaiians, so those Hawaiians who are unsheltered largely prefer the term “houseless” to acknowledge they are simply without a house.)

Hui like Pu‘uhonua o Wai‘anae and Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo show that giving Hawaiians land, and then allowing them to self-govern, works. Leaders like Bumpy Kanahele and Twinkle Borge are clearly the best suited to care for their own people and their own aina. In cases like those, the best thing the government can do is get out of their way.

Yet there is still a population of homeless who are not from Hawaii and have no ties to the islands. The Institute for Human Services reported earlier this year that this population is growing. Programs like the institute’s Airline Relocation Program, which helps to relocate members of this group back to homes on the continent, are important.

It is also time to consider a more assertive approach for those who suffer from severe mental illness or drug addiction.

There is growing fear of and frustration with the homeless population, particularly those moving into previously quiet and safe residential areas. The incidents of violent attacks by homeless individuals makes these fears reasonable:

  • In July 2016, one homeless man fatally stabbed another in Kapiolani Park;
  • In January 2014, a homeless California man fatally stabbed a homeless Kailua man;
  • This year in March, a homeless man in Waikiki assaulted a woman and tried to stab her with a box-cutter;
  • In July, a young tourist was attacked and knocked unconscious by a homeless man in Waikiki;
  • The previous week, another woman was attacked by a homeless man at Ala Moana Beach Park and rendered unconscious;
  • In May, a couple visiting from Japan were attacked at Mother Waldren Park in Kakaako;
  • Also, in late May, a homeless man stabbed a Honolulu police officer.

We must not become desensitized to this sort of violence.

Too many of these incidents involved victims who were strangers to the attackers and were just minding their own business when violently attacked. In a number of the incidents, victims describe erratic behavior from their attackers that indicate a possible nexus with mental health issues or drug use.

Isn’t it time to better address this small, but potentially dangerous, population?

San Francisco recently announced a new conservatorship program that would force some homeless people who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction into treatment programs. Having recently been to San Francisco, where I regularly had to navigate around drug syringes and human feces on the sidewalks, I say “Hallelujah!”

How soon can we start a similar program in Hawaii?

People are literally dying in the streets.

I can already hear the ACLU frantically crafting a response, but don’t residents and visitors also have rights to enjoy our neighborhoods safely and freely? We shouldn’t be afraid to go to the beach. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our children walk to school. We shouldn’t have to exist with a debilitating fear that keeps us indoors at night and has us buying expensive security systems for our homes.

It seems that in advocating for the freedom for some, you are making prisoners of the many.

We are suffering in a political environment plagued with inaction. In advocating for their legislation, the San Francisco elected official spoke of how it is inhumane to allow those who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs to simply deteriorate on their streets.

I completely agree, because the problem they describe is not exclusive to San Francisco. I’ve seen two bodies (covered with sheets) of homeless people in the last month. One was downtown on Alakea Street in the middle of the day.

The police were standing over a poor soul that had passed away in the doorway of a closed store. The body, covered in a white sheet, was jutting out into the public walkway with people walking by.

People are literally dying in the streets. A report released by Honolulu’s Medical Examiner confirms this. The analysis showed that 373 homeless people on Oahu died from 2014 to 2018. The medical examiner, Dr. Christopher Happy, further noted, “Compared to Oahu’s general population those who are homeless have a higher rate of death from drug abuse, infectious diseases, and in far too many instances, they fall victim to homicide.”

“The statistics are startling and show us that our streets and other public areas are not fit for human habitation,” said Office of Housing Executive Director Marc Alexander in a statement. “As an island community that believes in the principle of ‘aloha,’ true compassion is helping people into stable shelter and supportive housing where their health needs can be addressed.

The reality is that many members of our homeless population need more than just “supportive housing,” they need treatment.

Lt. Governor’s Josh Green’s “H4” work has been an inspiring effort to find real solutions for some, but we must realize that more must be done for the small percentage of the homeless population that suffer from debilitating conditions. Conservatorship is a means of last resort, but it is nonetheless time to make it an option.

It has been painfully clear that the status quo does not work for any of us. Real solutions will require innovation and courage, and also remembering that we all need to live here – together.

These islands should be enjoyable and safe for all of us.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.