Working in Downtown Honolulu, one of the most striking manifestations I see of the changes taking place in Hawaii’s economy is the growing number of homeless persons on the street.

For me, every encounter I have with the homeless touches my conscience, as it reminds me of when I was a young boy living on Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in June of 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spectacularly erupted. At the time, my father, Daniel de Gracia, was the commander of the 633rd Medical Group, and the evacuation of the Philippines sent thousands of displaced persons to our base as part of the U.S. military’s “Operation: Fiery Vigil,” which transported survivors out of the affected region.

Since my father was in charge of medical operations, he wanted me to experience firsthand what “real health care” was, so he brought me to see the evacuees as they arrived and in the places they were temporarily housed. Some of the eruption survivors came off the planes disheveled, covered in dirt, reeking of blood, urine, and feces, something that I as a child was totally unprepared for.

Using a housing annex on the base called “Andy South,” the Air Force temporarily housed whatever displaced persons couldn’t be immediately transferred out by air to Hawaii or the mainland.

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park as a person walks his dog on a leash.

The homeless encampment Kakaako Gateway Park was a major source of political and public angst earlier this year.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One night, around 7 p.m., my father came into my room and said, “Come with me. I’m going to show you something.”

We drove down to Andy South, and walked to one of the refugee shelters, where my father sought out a single mother and gave her a tube of medication.

“I’m Lieutenant Colonel de Gracia, and this is your medication,” he said. “I brought my son, Daniel, along to meet you.”

The woman hugged both of us, and said with teary eyes that she would never forget what we did for her.

At age 10, I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but later realized that the reason my father brought me there was because many of the evacuees felt they had been forgotten and that no one cared about their plight. Other officers had been reluctant to go down and see the situation firsthand, choosing instead to deal indirectly with the evacuees at the “policy” level, but my father wanted to make a show-of-force that if it was OK for the commander to come down with just his son to help the people, there was no excuse for others not to get actively involved in making a difference.

Today, whenever homeless people approach me, my experience as a child with evacuees still haunts me, and I gladly and generously offer them whatever assistance I am able to give. I still remember that single mother who had been driven from her home and the smells of Andy South during Fiery Vigil, and it intensely motivates me to cherish humanity on the streets.

But despite my earnest charity and the actions of many other private persons, the homeless crisis in Hawaii is getting worse.

Why This Needs To Be A 2020 Issue

In the 2020 elections, particularly the Honolulu mayoral race, alleviating homelessness needs to be a top priority. But like Fiery Vigil, our politicians need to get out of the mindset of simply addressing homelessness from behind a desk and actually get out on the streets.

In Hawaii, there are an estimated 6,530 persons experiencing homelessness on any given day, and per capita, we are one of the top homeless states in the nation.

In overpriced Hawaii, it is easy to see how the cost of living can be a major factor in homelessness. The first thing that we need to do is stop criminalizing poverty. Government always thinks it is raising revenues by imposing a blistering array of fines and fees on citizens, but taken as part of a greater whole where people aren’t making much money (or don’t have many savings), every fine and fee the government imposes pushes poor people closer to the edge of a cliff. In Hawaii, for example, car registration fees are already exorbitant, and our elected officials wanted to push them even higher.

Hale Mauliola, the city-supported homeless housing project on Sand Island, was built in 2015.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The other issue that needs to be addressed is the shortage of housing, which creates artificial scarcity that drives up prices. For the vulnerable lower income groups, there needs to be more housing approved and built. At a minimum, an additional 25,847 housing units will need to be built just in Honolulu.

There may also be an opportunity for federal assistance in developing temporary shelters for homeless people, as the Trump administration has already made overtures to help the City of Los Angeles, which is suffering a similar crisis. While critics often argue “mass shelter” approaches are not effective, providing alternatives to just being on the streets is a vital humanitarian role of government, and Honolulu should consider reaching out to the White House for federal assistance.

President Kennedy, in his inaugural address, famously said that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” We should take those words to heart. It’s time to do something.

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