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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 15, 2006

Who are the homeless?

 •  Wai'anae's homeless just can't afford to rent

By Will Hoover and Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writers

Ellie Jo Kahu takes laundry from a clothesline at Ma'ili Beach Park. She and her companion, Rick Chaves, moved onto the beach after their apartment rent shot to $1,600 a month, and they could no longer afford the payments.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Anthony Quejado, 40, relaxes at his Poka'i Bay campsite. He knows that being homeless on the Wai'anae Coast makes for a transient, and sometimes volatile, way of life. Like many other people living on the beach, Quejado has received his share of illegal camping citations from the police.

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Jeremiah Lopez and Caroline Soaladaob enjoy a rare quiet moment at the couple's normally hectic campsite at Kea'au Beach Park in Makaha, where they live with their nine children, ages 2 to 16.

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For a quarter of a century, Alice Kaholo Greenwood and her husband, James, shared their lives and raised a family in a Hakimo Road home in Nanakuli. During those years, Alice remained an active, familiar face in the community and lived what she considers an average lifestyle.

Then, in 2001, James Greenwood died. Alice, a pure-blooded Hawaiian, managed to keep the house on her meager assistance income until her landlord sold the place this year. After that she couldn't afford the higher rents in the area. On July 15, at age 60, Greenwood became homeless. She and her adopted son, Makali'i, 5, live at Ma'ili Beach park in a tent.

"I never once ever thought I'd be a homeless person," Greenwood said. "I'm still kind of shocked about the whole thing. I thought I'd be set in my life right now."

Contrary to general perception, a growing portion of Wai'anae's newly homeless are not taking up residence on public beaches or in the hills because of drug or mental problems, say outreach workers and healthcare providers who serve them.

According to the specialists, the recent crop of homeless are basically everyday people caught living too close to the financial edge during precarious economic times and an increasingly expensive housing market.

A common thread in their stories is some unexpected calamity that pushes them out of the house and into the coast's tent population.

Earlier this year, Zalei Kamaile was home watching a news account about the mushrooming homeless crisis on the Wai'anae Coast when she wondered, "Why don't they get jobs and go to work?"

Now that Kamaile is homeless herself, she sees things differently.

More than three months into her new life as a beachside tent person, Kamaile still finds it difficult to fathom the reality of her predicament.

"I open my eyes and here I am," said the 54-year-old musician, who used to entertain cruise ship passengers playing guitar and 'ukulele. "It's terrible. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."

For Kamaile, her 78-year-old mother and their 45-year-old disabled friend, what tipped the scales was their landlord's decision to sell the three-bedroom home they were renting in Kalihi. Unable to find an affordable replacement, the trio ended up in three tents on Ma'ili Beach.

Others have similar stories.

  • Consider Denise "Cisco" Johnson, 41. She was working two jobs as a security guard and a cook and making ends meet. Johnson, her teenage daughter, and her daughter's toddler son were renting a three-bedroom house in Wai'anae. The idea of being homeless had never crossed Johnson's mind.

    Then, she suffered two heart attacks and had surgeries on both legs. Now disabled, Johnson could no longer work, fell behind on the rent and was eventually evicted. For the past two years she's been a beach dweller.

  • Bert and Roxanne Bustamante and their nine children lived in a house owned by Bert's aunt on the coast. Roxanne's earnings as a Pizza Hut call center employee kept the family afloat until fate stepped in.

    "What happened was that my uncle got into an accident and became disabled," said Bert, 48. "My auntie had to sell that house because they needed the income from it."

    Unable to afford a place big enough for the family, the Bustamantes settled at Campsite 5 in Nanakuli Beach Park. Ten months later, they're still there.

    "We got squeezed out by the economy," said Bustamante, who added that his family would gladly move to a state transitional shelter when one becomes available. "We had no choice but come to the beach. We had nowhere else to go."

    Roxannne added, "I'm just a working mom who can't afford a place to live on what I make."

    COULD GET WORSE

    Tulutulu "Tulu" Toa, a specialist for the Wai'anae Community Outreach program, has worked directly with the coast's homeless population for the past 16 years. She probably knows more of the area's homeless people than anyone else does.

    What's happening now is out of the ordinary, she said. In the past, the homeless were often people existing on the social fringes doing drugs, drinking heavily, or suffering from extreme emotional, family, and personal difficulties.

    Those problems still exist, she said. But the newly homeless are increasingly regular folks who arrive at the beach because of a financial upheaval. The trend began two years ago and picked up steam with escalating rents, which have doubled since then, Toa said.

    "Landlords are selling their homes, and people have to relocate to another place, but they can't find places they can afford," she said. "The rent is too high.

    "It could get worse before it gets better."

    Added Jo Jordan, who chairs the parks and recreation committee for the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board, "The day of the $400-a-month rental in Wai'anae is gone. It's no more. What we need is housing.

    "Meanwhile, my parks are in disarray."

    Since demand for affordable rentals outstrips supply, more people could become homeless, Jordan said.

    HOW MANY HOMELESS?

    Just how many homeless people actually inhabit the Wai'anae Coast remains a mystery. Head counts by state and private entities have varied widely, adding confusion to an already complicated crisis.

    According to state housing officials, who survey the coast every two years, the area's total number of homeless people was 3,477 at the end of 2005. Area service workers report hundreds more have joined the homeless ranks since then.

    Those figures, however, have been disputed. One person who believes the state figures skew too high is Michael Ullman, a homeless-service researcher.

    On Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, Ullman and about six dozen volunteers conducted a beach count for the Wai'anae Community Outreach program. Ullman's team came up with between 750 and 850 people living at as many as 350 coastal campsites.

    But Ullman's survey was limited to beach parks and did not include people living in the hills, caves or high-risk locations such as the dense underbrush at the extreme western end of the coast, according to Kanani Kaaiawahia Bulawan, executive director of the Wai'anae Community Outreach.

    Bulawan also said the survey didn't include homeless who had vacated the beaches immediately before the survey, fearing a long-rumored police sweep was imminent. Nor did it count beach dwellers who refused to classify themselves as "homeless" for a variety of reasons, including having outstanding warrants or worries that Child Protective Services could seize their children.

    And no person or agency will even hazard a guess at the region's big unknown: its number of "hidden homeless" people who have no residence but live temporarily with relatives, neighbors, friends or even strangers. The hidden homeless population could be huge.

    It's this fragile unknown quantity that Bulawan and others believe holds the potential to transform the coast's homeless crisis into an epidemic of extreme consequences, especially for struggling families.

    RAN OUT OF PLACES

    One "hidden homeless" family that recently became visible is that of Jeremiah Lopez and Caroline Soaladaob and the nine children ages 2 to 16 living with them.

    "We haven't had our own house for a while and have had to move from place to place," said Soaladaob not long after the family moved to Kea'au Beach Park after leaving Soaladaob's mother's one-bedroom home in Makaha. "Then, we ran out of places to go."

    The family survives on food stamps and $1,740 a month the couple gets for their youngest child's severe disabilities. Because the boy needs so much care, Soaladaob had to quit her job.

    The family has no drug, alcohol or mental problems, insists Soaladaob. It just can't find an affordable three-bedroom apartment.

    "I'm begging people," she said. "I'm saying, 'Please, I'll pay extra deposit to make sure my kids have a place to live.' They say, 'Don't you have any other source of income? Why don't you work?' I say, 'I cannot work. If I do, I lose my benefits.'

    "They feel bad. But they won't take my deposit."

    Soaladaob realizes the mayor and governor have pledged to work together to relieve the homeless problem. But she admits feeding her family, getting the kids to school, and dealing with the ever-changing drama of living in a tent without electricity or hot water doesn't leave her much time to think about it.

    CAUSE FOR HOPE

    For those who wage the constant struggle of being homeless on the coast, the best intentions of elected officials can cause additional anxiety. But those intentions can also be a cause for hope.

    That hope is cautiously shared by members of the Wai'anae Coast community.

    Resident Patty Teruya thinks the fact that the homeless issue is finally being openly discussed qualifies as a breakthrough.

    Teruya sees the crisis from several points of view: as chairwoman of the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board, as the city's special events coordinator, and as a member of a grassroots group that studied the homeless problem and recommended a solution similar to what the governor proposes now.

    Although that plan, known as "Camp Hope," was roundly rejected by residents who said it would transform Wai'anae into the "Homeless Capital of O'ahu," Teruya said the process changed her entire view of people who have no place to live.

    "I had thought homelessness was an enforcement issue," she said. "I absolutely did. Then I got to know homeless people and I worked with them, and I changed my tone. I started listening to them about their situation, and I started being more understanding and compassionate."

    Teruya still believes the homeless need to be moved off public beaches and into emergency and transitional housing once those facilities are available. But the public has a right to use its public beaches, she said.

    She thinks the best way to facilitate that outcome is through a positive dialogue between the community, the homeless, elected officials, and the rest of the people of O'ahu and the state.

    "Whose problem is it? They keep saying it's our kuleana. But it's everybody's kuleana."

    So while Bert and Roxanne Bustamante hold out hope that the state will come through on its promise to get the family into a transitional shelter, Alice Greenwood said hope is the one thing she still has in abundance.

    "I'm very optimistic," said Greenwood, who is researching the constitutional rights of homeless people.

    "When I look into my crystal ball, I'm thinking a year from now I'll be staying in my own place, happily raising my baby, and still fighting for community causes."

    A stolen moment

    Jeremiah Lopez and Caroline Soaladaob enjoy a rare quiet moment at the couple's normally hectic campsite at Kea'au Beach Park in Makaha, where they live with their nine children, ages 2 to 16.

    Who are the homeless?

    LIFE ON THE BEACH

    LEFT: Ellie Jo Kahu takes laundry from a clothesline at Ma'ili Beach Park. She and her companion, Rick Chaves, moved onto the beach after their apartment rent shot to $1,600 a month, and they could no longer afford the payments.

    BELOW: Anthony Quejado, 40, relaxes at his Poka'i Bay campsite. He knows that being homeless on the Wai'anae Coast makes for a transient, and sometimes volatile, way of life. Like many other people living on the beach, Quejado has received his share of illegal camping citations from the police.

    Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com and Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.