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Homeless in Honolulu
August 6, 2013

For many people, Waikiki is shorthand for paradise. The famous Honolulu beach was once a marshy area converted to duck ponds and taro farms which in the 1800s became a hangout for Hawaiian royalty. Today it’s a seaside mecca where the people-watching is fantastic from your beach blanket, barstool or park bench.

On a recent trip there I saw fashionably dressed Japanese families, mainland Americans sporting sunburns and shorts, chiseled surfers strolling Kalakaua Avenue in nothing but swimsuits, boards under their arms. There are swanky shops peddling high-end accessories, pricey restaurants, Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers on every other corner, parents shepherding kids through crowds and honeymooners holding hands. Yet this affluent overlay has an underside.

I also saw a surprising number of people hanging out in groups or napping under banyan trees and next to bus stops, some with backpacks or bikes splayed nearby, others with nothing but the clothes on their backs. One man slept in mid-afternoon right next to a public restroom just off the beach. He had neatly placed his shoes next to the blanket on which he laid.

They’re likely some of the 6,300 people experiencing homelessness in Hawaii on any given day. According to Hawaii Public Radio, about 300 “regulars” in the Waikiki area are primarily middle-aged, single men from the mainland. Some came to Hawaii for work and weather but found the cost of living too high to afford a place to live on a low service industry wage. Others are native Hawaiians who similarly can’t afford high local rents even if they’re working. There’s a tent city in another Oahu town that’s “home” to 1,000 or more folks including hundreds of children.

The Hawaii state government recently allocated $100,000 to fly (or ship) willing people who are homeless back to their families on the mainland. The plan has drawn some criticism from service providers who say it’s a poor long-term solution and that homelessness has deeper roots. True, and local officials have other ideas too. The City of Honolulu has adopted a “housing first” policy targeting their most frequent users of homeless services, those with particularly high barriers to housing stability such as untreated mental illness or chemical dependency. Street outreach workers build relationships with them, checking in day after day until they're ready to make a change. Sound familiar? We have a similar plan in Minneapolis that seems to be working. 

What I learned on my summer vacation: the grass is not always greener somewhere else, even in paradise.