Hope, fear and honesty in Wai'anae
A group of neighbors gathers in the island-style living room of a Wai'anae home and speaks candidly about the homeless situation in their community. They say the kinds of things people only feel comfortable saying among friends in the privacy of somebody's house. They're compassionate but frustrated, hopeful but scared. One father says he'll take his dogs to the beach, but not his children. One woman says she didn't dare go to the beach for eight years. A mom says she drives her kids to Ko Olina rather than go to beaches near their home.
Denise Saylors got all of this raw honesty on camera. The first-time filmmaker put together a documentary called "This is Paradise?" which captures the complex feelings of longtime Wai'anae Coast residents who have watched the homeless situation grow and spread and take over their beaches.
It wasn't an easy project. A relative newcomer — she and her husband moved to Wai'anae two years ago — Saylors had to prove herself and her intentions to the community. The right people had to vouch for her.
"For instance, while at the beach or at the store, people would tell me, 'So and so called me and asked me if you were OK. I told them you were,' " Saylors said.
Not everyone she approached agreed to be interviewed. Some said they were afraid of retribution or too ashamed of the situation. But the people who did sit with her, in the living room or on the beach or at their offices, describe a situation that is unmanaged and unmanageable and heartbreaking on so many levels.
The documentary opens with shots of the junked cars, garbage piles and extended campsites along the Wai'anae coast. These are juxtaposed with shots of Waikiki's manicured sand and swept sidewalks and Hawai'i Kai's tidy bay. Though the camera work isn't perfect, Saylors pulls off a brilliant move, shooting Wai'anae's coastline from the ocean. By using a boat to tour the beaches, she gets behind the thicket of dry bushes and kiawe that hide the enormity of the situation from the roadway.
"This documentary is not meant to be a condemnation of homelessness nor of the Wai'anae Coast," Saylors says in the introduction. "But it is meant to illuminate some of the harsh realities of homelessness, the consequences that communities, cities, counties, states, all of us suffer by trying to turn our backs on homelessness, by trying to pretend it doesn't exist."
Victor Rapoza, a longtime Wai'anae resident, stands in his shop and lets loose about what he's seen over the years.
"In a sense, I feel like the system has created the homeless," he says. "The drug situation out here creates the homeless also."
He shares a story about a neighbor who went to a homeless encampment to hire a couple of guys to help clean his yard. Nobody wanted to work, but they did ask for five dollars.
It's not like that in Hawai'i Kai, Rapoza says.
"You don't see homeless, you don't see people camping. I don't even see a (primer-painted) car driving in Hawai'i Kai. That's the situation they chose that they don't want to have in their community."
Resident and business operator Brenda Holburn tells a story about a break-in at her home.
"The guy told us it was nothing personal. That's how they get by."
There is no one solution, Holburn says, just as there is no one cause.
"I do want to say in fairness to Wai'anae, not all the homeless in Wai'anae are Wai'anae people. What happens is a lot of people come out here because they know they're less likely to be bothered by the authorities out here."
Makaha Marketplace owner S.E. Cole voices the emotional dilemma that the community wrestles with:
"The culture of the Wai'anae community is very open, very aloha, and they don't want to hurt these people. Many of us know homeless people from our own experience. They're people we've grown up with; we even have relatives who are homeless."
In perhaps the most dramatic quote in the piece, Tenari Maafala, president of the State of Hawai'i Organization of Police Officers, says he won't take his children to the beach because of safety concerns. If the president of the statewide police union doesn't feel safe on the beach, who can?
The last part of the documentary involves discussion of solutions.
"There's absolutely a solution," S.E. Cole says. "It involves the will of the powers that be."
Saylors is submitting the documentary to film festivals and is already thinking about a follow-up piece. This time, she'd like to talk to folks living on the beach. She tried before, but got chased away.
The strength of the documentary is in its honesty.
If ever you've thought, "Nobody cares about the homeless situation on the Leeward Coast," this piece will prove you wrong. People do care, deeply — enough to speak their minds while a camera was rolling.
Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.