About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

In the days following the Paula Fuga incident, the same question was on everyone’s mind: how could anyone be like that?

Here was a popular and inspirational local singer performing at a fundraiser to help needy people have food for the holidays, getting repeatedly mocked after opening up about her own traumatic experiences with hunger and homelessness. It was gross and shameful and idiotic, and nearly everyone who watched the clip felt the same angry disgust.

But the outrage, justified as it was, seemed to be aimed less at the content of what was said than the context in which it was said. In general, viewing homeless people as objects of derisive entertainment is not an uncommon attitude in Hawaii.

Look through any popular local social media account’s posts and it won’t be long before you see society’s most desperate and vulnerable people having manic episodes over some ironically upbeat background song, laughing emojis littered throughout the captions and comments.

That attitude feels like a coping mechanism. It’s hard to directly engage with the unconscionable unfairness of homelessness. Doing so forces us to make a choice, often unconsciously, to either feel vaguely bad every time we see someone living on the street, judge their circumstances as an indictment of their character and life choices, or ignore them altogether.

It doesn’t help that many of our interactions with the homeless are with people suffering from mental health and addiction issues, which tends to elicit fear and confusion more than an outpouring of compassion. The reality of helping poor people is more ethically complicated than the theory.

This is not to encourage or even excuse the casual disregard with which we treat homeless people in Hawaii. Whatever challenges we encounter due to their presence is paltry compared to what they face due to our inaction; the real victims of homelessness are of course the people who do not have homes. But understanding why we are the way we are helps explain why the same misconceptions about poverty and homelessness persist.

People in tents camp along fence of the Hilton Lagoon in Waikiki during COVID-19 pandemic. November 12, 2020
People were living in tents along the fence of the Hilton Lagoon in Waikiki this month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The American Dream that we can all better ourselves through hard work and prudent decision-making is built into our national psyche, and while it has certainly been true for some people in some places at some times, it’s not always that simple.

Some of us are born in a position where we can comfortably weather mistakes and lapses in judgement, while others are born on a tightrope.

“Nobody chooses the conditions of their childhood,” state Rep. Sonny Ganaden said. “Nobody chooses poverty.”

The inheritance of poverty dismisses much of the reactionary “bootstraps” mentality. When you’re born poor, it takes a tremendous sustained effort to improve your socioeconomic circumstances. One mistake, one bad bounce in life can set you back years, and all of this has to be done while navigating a daily reality much more unforgiving than most of us acknowledge.

“We need to be honest about how we inscribe trauma on children, how we look the other way,” said Ganaden. “Paula (Fuga) was a kid when she was moved off the beach. That kind of trauma stays with you for life. Government should be in the business of ending cycles of trauma.”

But it’s difficult to pinpoint just where breaking those cycles should start. Poverty can be a result of many disparate forces specific to individuals and communities. One key component of homelessness in Hawaii, however, is the crippling cost of living.

“There is an infinite demand for vacation homes, for a good place to retire and all the other reasons people want to come here,” state Sen. Chris Lee said. “That drives up the cost of property and the cost of living.”

The cost of living in Hawaii is especially burdensome because most jobs are related to tourism.

“That’s created an economy that tends to pay less for the work done compared to many other places,” said Lee.

Paula Fuga performs Hokulea arrival at North Cove Pier, New York City. 5 june 2016.
Paula Fuga, seen here in 2016, elevated the public discussion about homelessness after she stood up to radio DJs who mocked her past during a recent benefit show. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Most of these jobs could be considered low-skill work, but as this pandemic has shown, low-skill does not mean unimportant. Not only do they pay a woefully inadequate amount, it is common for these kinds of businesses to schedule employees just under 40 hours a week to avoid the costs of providing health insurance.

The result is a growing population of local people juggling multiple jobs just to scrape by, one unexpected medical emergency away from eviction.

“People have been displaced from their original lands, then displaced from the places they struggle to rent and then they end up on the beaches or on the streets, and then they’re forcibly removed and displaced from those places, too,” said Laulani Teale, project coordinator for Ho’opae Pono Peace Project.

Teale noted one of the most uncomfortable truths about homelessness in Hawaii: Native Hawaiians compose a large chunk of the homeless population. This is especially egregious, since they have more claim to the land than anyone, but it is also a reason to return to Indigenous values.

“The Law of the Splintered Paddle was the first law in the Kingdom of Hawaii and has been recognized by the State of Hawaii, but it is not followed,” she said. “That law specifically protects people who lay in the road. It’s specific that those who are in a lower position of power will not be abused, and if you abuse people according to our ancient law, you have no legitimacy and you must be taken down.”

Ganaden, Lee and Teale each point to different causes, and thus propose different solutions to address the ongoing crisis.

For Ganaden, the primary culprit is the punitive criminal justice system that has criminalized poverty.

“It’s more cost-effective and humane to give people housing and food and provide for those services through the state,” he said. “It’s cheaper than continuing mass incarceration, and it’s more aligned with local values.”

There are also tax loopholes that disproportionately benefit the people who need it the least, to the detriment of those who need it most.

“Our system,” Lee said, “is set up to apply pressure to regular families while completely missing massive white collar crime and offshore tax havens. All these loopholes allow people who control most of the wealth in the economy to continue to legally and illegally suck up more of it at the expense of everybody else.”

While nonprofits and charities play a crucial role in alleviating the pains of poverty for many families, the problem is already much larger than those efforts are capable of handling. Government is in the best position to address the systemic problems behind homelessness.

Teale has perhaps the most radical yet sensible proposal: fundamentally rewire how we buy and sell land.

“We need to stop real estate sales to outsiders from Hawaii. That industry as a profiteering industry needs to end. Real estate is how people’s lands are stolen so that other people can have those lands. That’s why Hawaiians are displaced,” she said. “People will point to socioeconomic this and that and educational stuff. I’m not arguing against those things, those are important. But when it really comes down to it, it’s people buying up Hawaiian lands and kicking out Hawaiian people.”

Homelessness may seem intractable, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Enacting specific policies will be vital to helping the most people in the most targeted, meaningful ways possible, but there is also a psychic inertia we must overcome, a cultural acquiescence that stands in the way of change.

Until we can honestly confront our assumptions of and responses to homelessness, it will be difficult to generate the political will to do anything about it. Helping the homeless is the easiest moral argument you can make, and as the Paula Fuga incident showed, it can also be a powerful point of unity.

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Latest Comments (0)

You talk about helping homeless how I have not seen help yet. Also what about homeless that are being robbed beat up and the police does nothing to help. It that there job to help. The homeless are humans as well as anyone else. Some don't want to be there but if they have no one to help what can you do. I'm in calif. My son is one of them out on the streets no shelter helps him. He gets robbed beat up no police helps him. I heard how the cops talk to these people I wouldn't ask for help cuz you feel like they won't anyway. What my son has it gets taken his phone money it's a bunch of lies that the homeless hears .  they have nothing but what you see and to have someone to steel from them it's a crime and they keep doing it cuz they can..So when you talk about helping help them to feel safe and don't something about the people that steel from them and beat up. That's a crime there's more to all this that is not getting attention.  My son had it together moves to hawaii luck has not been on his side. 

Sillygrl · 3 years ago

Eric - excellent commentary with some uncomfortable truth bombs that get to the heart of the matter. Chris Lee is correct that vacation homes and investment properties snatched up by nonresidents drive up the cost of housing because many locals get outbid with hard cold cash offers. Low level tourism, retail and restaurant jobs force our people to work multiple jobs and yet they cannot afford a home. Truth bomb #2:  a disproportionate number of homeless are Native Hawaiians. Why? I’m not sure. The upper crust Native Hawaiians do extremely well with their kids getting educated at Punahou, Iolani and Kamehameha Schools and getting plum jobs. Those who attend public school don’t do as well. Possibly because education is not a priority at home (but can’t miss football practice!) and they end up in tourism and low wage jobs. Truth bomb #3: want to bring down the cost of housing? Stop selling to non-residents and investors. Outlawing B&Bs didn’t bring down the cost of housing. Nothing will do that other than shutting non-residents out. Realtors, mainland and foreign investors will fight it tooth and nail. Also, it’s next to impossible to build affordable housing due to NIMBYsm

kbaybaby · 3 years ago

"We need to stop real estate sales to outsiders from Hawaii. That industry as a profiteering industry needs to end. Real estate is how people’s lands are stolen so that other people can have those lands. That’s why Hawaiians are displaced"Totally agree.  But unfortunately, that ship done sailed when the islands were seized by Americans in 1898.  No going back except to guilt trip the state and federal government for just  reparations.  So get in line with the native Americans who have similarly been dispossessed along with black Americans whose ancestors lives were stolen through slavery.  I weep for the injustice of it all and the  extremely thin reeds of hope that it will ever be rectified.

oldsurfa · 3 years ago

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