Hawaii: Blue skies, sandy beaches and a rising tide of homelessness

Advocates say Honolulu'€™s new ‘sit-lie' law and related regulations unfairly target its most vulnerable residents

A man sleeping near Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.
Cathy Bussewitz / AP Images

LIHUE, Hawaii — On a tropical island known for its clean, blue waters and sandy beaches, the last thing business owners want is an image tarnished by homeless camps and sidewalks cluttered with squatters.

In the 2014 “State of Homelessness in America” report, Hawaii ranked highest among the 50 states for homeless people per capita. A recent state-sponsored tally found there were more than 4,700 homeless on Oahu, with at least 2,200 on neighboring islands — figures that most advocates agree underreport the true total. With Honolulu’s business interests and residents frustrated by Oahu’s growing homeless population, the city has introduced three laws aimed at clearing city streets and parks.

On Sept. 16, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed three bills that make it a misdemeanor (punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine) to sit or lie on sidewalks in the bustling tourist district of Waikiki and outlaw relieving oneself in public islandwide.

Homeless advocates say the new laws unfairly target Hawaii’s most vulnerable residents, especially since Waikiki has only one 24-hour public restroom in the crowded district.

Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said Honolulu’s sit-lie law is unconstitutional and points to Hawaii’s historic “law of the splintered paddle,” known in Hawaiian as kanawai mamalahoe. Introduced by King Kamehameha around 1797, the law states, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” Kanawai mamalahoe is written into Hawaii’s state constitution, and homeless advocates say it must be upheld, while sit-lie supporters say it is only symbolic and not legally binding.

Xian also cited a 2012 research report that found such laws don’t increase economic activity or improve homeless services.

But members of the business community, like Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, support the measures. “There has been a remarkable improvement,” he said. “A number of people on Kalakaua Avenue that were staking out and panhandling visitors — they’re gone.” 

He said the concentration of Hawaii’s tourism industry in Waikiki made the district a “target-rich environment” for homeless people looking to receive money from visitors.

He acknowledged the importance of policies that help those unable to take care of themselves but stressed, “We want to make sure that homeless people understand we’re not going to let them take over Waikiki’s public spaces.”


‘We are not a Disneyland paradise. The people here are in a very real struggle to survive, and they’re being displaced at a terrible rate.’

Laulani Teale

advocate for the homeless

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, said that while the new laws aren’t a perfect solution, they’re “a step in the right direction” that will improve traffic to Waikiki’s shops.

She said her organization has been receiving phone calls from visitors expressing concerns about the growing number of homeless people in Honolulu. “We’ve heard from some [visitors] that they wouldn’t want to return to Hawaii because it’s gotten worse,” she said.

The laws come a year after the city passed an ordinance authorizing officials to remove objects deemed a “public nuisance” from the sidewalk, including tents, containers, furniture, food, medication and other personal items.

Homeless supporters urged leaders to address broader issues of economic inequality, a lack of affordable housing and what they see as the state’s misplaced priorities that reward transnational business interests at the expense of the state’s most socially and economically marginalized classes.

“We are not a Disneyland paradise,” said Laulani Teale, a coordinator at the nonprofit peace project Hoopae Pono. “The people here are in a very real struggle to survive, and they’re being displaced at a terrible rate.”

The Caldwell administration plans to relocate a hundred “chronic homeless” who meet specific criteria to an industrial site called Sand Island as part of its “compassionate disruption” policy.

Critics blast the plan as an attempt to expel Honolulu’s most desperate population to an isolated, unsafe and uninhabitable location where they will be out of sight but no better off.

“I would argue it is much more incompassionate to leave people on the streets in place than to pick them up and take them to a shelter,” Honolulu City Council Member Ikaika Anderson said at a press conference.

Xian, however, called Sand Island a “de facto internment camp.”

The 173-acre island, composed mostly of dredged sediment and fill, was an actual internment camp used to detain U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and others during World War II. Before that, it was used to quarantine ship passengers.

In the 1970s Native Hawaiians established their own village on Sand Island but were evicted by the state for trespassing. More recently, it has served as a sewage treatment plant and solid waste disposal site. A 2000 EPA study reported parts of the island were contaminated with arsenic, lead, nickel, methylene chloride and possibly pesticides and PCBs. While concerns of remnant toxins persist, the city has proposed paving the homeless transition site with asphalt.

Caldwell’s office declined to provide comment for this story but in a news release wrote that Sand Island would offer a “safe, supportive environment and provide assessment services, stability and access to supportive services.”

Honolulu resident H. Doug Matsuoka describes himself as one of Hawaii’s “hidden homeless”; he lacks a permanent residence and is staying with a friend. He said he sees “more homeless all over town,” including a greater number of families with children.

Hawaii’s homeless population reflects the state’s diverse demographics. Homeless advocates say most are lifelong or longtime island residents, and increasingly they are elderly, children, military veterans, victims of domestic violence and mental health patients struggling as health services are cut.

According to a 2013 University of Hawaii Center on the Family report, roughly one-third of Hawaii’s homeless are Native Hawaiians (though they represent only 10 percent of the overall population). Another third are Caucasians, with the remainder a mix of people, half of whom are Micronesians who can legally migrate to the U.S. under a special agreement, the Compact of Free Association.

A 90-minute drive west of Honolulu, on Oahu’s hot, arid Waianae coast, Alice Ululani Kaholo Greenwood recalled her experience with homelessness in 2005. A Native Hawaiian, she lost her home when her landlord sold the house she was renting and she couldn’t afford a new place.

“I used to criticize the homeless,” she said. “Then when I moved on the beach, [homeless people] really helped me.” After nine months of homelessness, she was able to get into subsidized housing but continues to fight for other homeless people.

According to Greenwood, Waianae’s harbor has more than 250 homeless, including some 40 children.

Alongside the increase in homelessness is a boom in large-scale, luxury construction projects in central Honolulu and other parts of Oahu. These developments underscore the lack of affordable housing in a state where the median sale price of a single-family home on Oahu was $678,500 (condominium $347,000) in September.

State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, said Hawaii’s real estate investment trends have helped drive the cost of land and property taxes higher while Hawaii has failed to keep up with housing demand for at least a decade. She pointed to a 2011 study that reports Hawaii could require as many as 50,000 new housing units by 2016 to meet current needs.

“People don’t know they’re affecting local folks, but when [they] move here and buy [multi]million-dollar homes, that jacks up everyone’s value,” said Chun Oakland, who represents an urban district where many homeless live.

Kyle Kajihiro, a board member with the nonprofit group Hawaii Peace and Justice, blamed military expropriation of land in Hawaii for contributing to the homeless problem.

“The stark contrast between the landlessness of Native Hawaiians and the vast amount of land occupied by the military is symbolic of the injustice of Hawaii’s military-political economy,” he said.

While Chun Oakland is generally supportive of the military presence, she said that if proposed military cuts mean a downsized presence in Hawaii, it could free up thousands of housing units. 

“My hope is that if there are vacancies in military housing," she said, "they will be offered to the state for residents to buy or rent.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

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