Neal Milner: Theatergoers Need To Get Comfortable With Chinatown's Homeless People - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

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.

The risks outweigh the rewards to enjoy the variety of experiences in downtown Honolulu.

Kumu Kahua is a small theater company on the corner of Bethel and Merchant in downtown Honolulu. It depends on audiences willing to come downtown with all those homeless people there.


“Who goes downtown anymore?” For many, that is just a rhetorical question, not a question worth investigation because their own answer is, “Not me. Not on your life.” They don’t need to answer that question.

It’s hard to talk about homeless people without using the same old words like “crisis,” “count,” “plight,” “disgust,” “policy,” “onslaught” or the catchall, “we need to do something about them.” 

It’s hard to talk about them without making a judgment. It’s easy to talk about them as a category at a distance.

Kumu Kahua can’t afford to be distant and abstract or simply protest that something needs to get done. The homeless people are there and not going away. The audiences, on the other hand, have every opportunity to go away.

So, here is what it looks like when an enterprise must deal with homeless people, not homeless categories. Here are the changes that having homeless people around have brought to this theater. (I’m in the cast of the present production.)

It’s not a story of despair, but it’s not a comfortable one either. It’s about seat of the pants repurposing as things change.

Fifteen or so years ago, a homeless Vietnam vet named Mark would regularly hang around and sleep near Kumu’s entrance. He joined in the conversations, and sometimes someone would give him something to eat.

He and Kumu’s staff had a deal. Mark would be gone for every performance from an hour or so before the house opened until well after the audience left.

He was social, compliant and easy to be around — an uninvited but generally accepted guest.

Over the years, after Mark left, there have been some incidents and some trespass orders involving other homeless people near and at the theater.

Now, on most nights there are two or three homeless people around. They sleep only around the dark edges of the building. No one makes eye contact with them or even knows if they are the same ones every time. They are dark shapes and shadows as we look the other way. 

Kumu Kahua Theatre on Merchant Street in Honolulu is frequented by a few homeless people. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The theater staff is more wary and less willing to develop the kind of relationship Mark had with them.

The present Kumu staff are as passive as Mark was engaging. Mark was homeless but he was also Mark. The new ones are simply homeless. They are anonymous.

One of the theater’s stage entrances is on the side of the building off Bethel. To use that entrance, actors must walk outside and around the corner.

The only worry used to be whether an actor would get there in time to make an entrance. Now there is a well-organized buddy system of actors. No one goes to or leaves the Bethel entrance alone at any stage of the play.

And Sunday shows, which hardly ever used to sell out, are now the hottest ticket because they are matinees.

Kumu’s surroundings are now less inviting. The pocket park next to the theater used to be a busy place for dog walkers and a nice side show for the actors and patrons before they went into the theater. Not anymore. The park now has closing hours. The lady who used to bring her small dogs over in the saddlebags of her moped is long gone.

It’s a different feeling all around, one that depends much more on distancing and caution. The actors and the staff are wary, sometimes very worried, and not interested in getting to know the person sleeping in the portico better.

But the bigger point is this: Typically, there are no confrontations. People are still coming to the theater, including a lot of elderly folks who have always been a solid part of Kumu Kahua’s audience base. Attendance generally has been good.

But the informal boundaries between the homeless people and the actors, staff and patrons hold up well.

People adjust. People enjoy. That could be a motto for any thriving business downtown. That’s the best you can hope for under the circumstances.

What are the lessons here? Well, they are certainly not about public policy or solutions. They are also not about virtue-signaling or model moralities like charity, empathy and involvement. 

Kumu actors and staff deal with the poor among us not by chasing them away but by looking away. Of course, they do. There’s a play to perform.

In a rough and tumble way, it’s really about risk assessment, isn’t it? How strong are the rewards of seeing or performing the play as opposed to the risks of doing so? If you think the rewards are worth the risks, then you do what you can to protect yourself and do what you want to do.

The risk-reward frame — calculating risks — is a useful way to think about downtown and homelessness for at least two reasons.

First, even with sweeps, police presence or whatever, downtown will be filled with homeless people for a long, long time. Who can even guess how long?

Second, if you simply dismiss the possibility of going downtown under any circumstances, you are depriving yourself by default of considering whether the deprivation is worth it. 

One less place to see live theater, one less historical building to explore, and one less good restaurant to choose from. One more place where fear and disgust lock you down.

Kumu’s actors and patrons are not naive about homeless people. They are not comfortable with those people on the streets. But they know that what they want to do and see is right there where homeless people are and quite possibly nowhere else.

The patrons are certainly not idealists. They may feel sympathetic, but they also certainly feel disgust too. But they have a play they want to see.

Here is my reality check: More and more, that’s what life is going to be like in Honolulu — more variety, more rewards, more risks. 

It’s understandably hard to talk about homeless people without using language that tempts you to want to be as far away from them as possible.

For now, put aside the argument that that is bad for homeless people. Consider, though, how it may be bad for yourself by keeping you from doing things you enjoy doing.

Downtown repurposing is not just about buildings. Examine the possibility of repurposing the ways you think about your desires and fears.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

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.

Latest Comments (0)

Come on Neil. We should never be complacent and give up public spaces to homelessness and/or crime. If our weak spined city/state won't do it for us, then the people need to take back what should be everyones. Whether through public maintenance and care of public parks and areas that have been forgotten and abandon by the city, to adopting a section of the city to clean, maintain and marshal, it may come down the the public because the city is clearly lacking.

wailani1961 · 8 months ago

Neal, you are a very optimistic man…I’m unsure of the success of your hopes for Chinatown will manifest soon or ever. Here’s my story…Well, as a over 50 year resident of Hawaii, I’ve seen the homeless situation go from somewhat being there to bad to worse. Seemingly increasing exponentially. I took my visiting Grandaughter, her military fiancé and another friend to Chinatown recently. We had a nice lunch at the little village noodle house and decided to walk around a bit. In our 30 minute stroll, we were panhandled, followed, offered drugs, and physically threatened when we rejected them. To top it off as we hurried back to my vehicle, her friend stepped in excrement between parked cars (she just took the shoes off and left them there) the young man put her oh his back and carried her the rest of the way. It pretty much sealed the deal on ever going back to the area. With Walmart closing I can only envision the decay, despair and desperation will only expand and push the remaining pockets of relevance and prosperity further away.

blanez · 8 months ago

No disrespect, but you must be joking...ignore homeless and enjoy...What cool-aid have you been drinking...I went into Downtown and Chinatown in the daytime at 11 am, 3 months ago to look at property on Hotel St...Walked in from Irwin Park...Homeless man noticed my watch immediately and from the corner of my eye I saw him following me for 2 I picked up my pace, he picked up his, as I crossed the street, he crossed the street...he kept getting closer, slightly bigger than me and wiry...finally when he was about 2 feet behind me, I put my keys in my hand, made a fist, and abruptly turned and faced him in a marital arts fighting stance..."Good Morning! Why are you following me?" He was so stunned by my reaction, he stopped immediately and said, "Nothing", turned and walked away...Now if that happened to me in the daylight, you can sure bet something would happen at night and I will never take that chance, become so ridiculously passive about this problem is to destroy civility...We should never, ever allow ourselves to become complacent and passive to homelessness...government needs to do better so we don't have to live in fear and be free to enjoy our home...

slsofos · 8 months ago

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