HOMELESS ON THE WAI'ANAE COAST
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WAI'ANAE COAST About two years ago, a decade-old homeless problem along the beaches of the economically strapped Wai'anae Coast began to grow out of control. By 2005, the situation was taking on startling dimensions. Today, the problem has spiraled into a full-scale social crisis 16 miles of ramshackle tents packed with scores of bedraggled kids, women, men, mutts and their remaining worldly possessions.
Chief among the factors accelerating this explosion has been the area's rapidly rising rents in the face of a diminishing number of affordable rentals. In the past five years, the average monthly rent for a house on the coast has jumped by almost 90 percent. Landlords, who watched the median price of condos and previously owned houses on the coast skyrocket by 213 percent and 171 percent, respectively, between 2001 and 2005, were already pulling rental property off the market to cash in.
"At the very low end of the market, things are disappearing and prices are getting pushed up," explained O'ahu real estate analyst Ricky Cassiday.
Rising prices edged a growing number of low-income renters out the door. Those lucky enough to find an available home often couldn't afford the high rent. The result was a surge of homeless people migrating toward the only place available: the beach parks.
For more than two months beginning in August, The Honolulu Advertiser looked at the homeless problem on the Wai'anae Coast and spoke with dozens of beach dwellers and others affected by the crisis. What became clear is that some homeless have come from outside Wai'anae to seek refuge in a place known for its acceptance and aloha. However, a majority of the new homeless consist of everyday folks from the coast who have been displaced for economic reasons. They do not fit the stereotype of the chronic homeless marginal, troubled individuals afflicted with substance abuse or mental difficulties.
NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS
The coast's homeless crisis is commonly reported in terms of unfortunate beach dwellers with no place else to go versus the right of taxpayers to enjoy safe access to some of the most beautiful public beaches anywhere. Stories about miles of Hawai'i tent dwellers squatting on million-dollar beachfront property have made national news. The situation has become an embarrassment to the state, officials say.
Extreme homelessness on the coast wreaks havoc on residents, agencies and institutions in ways that are only beginning to be understood. Healthcare providers, police, educators and service workers grapple with a problem that's complicated, multifaceted and not given to simple solutions.
Where once the homeless population here primarily consisted of disenfranchised single men, now entire families live under the stars and attempt to scrape out an existence on meager public assistance. Area schools must cope with mounting legions of homeless students. The area's only local health center reports a dramatic surge in its homeless patients a sizable number who have no health insurance.
Longtime residents say conditions are the worst they've ever seen. And they place the blame largely on one source: decades of neglect by politicians and other public officials.
"I don't know, short of a revolution or rebellion or uprising, what we can do," said Pikake Pelekai, president of the Waianae Valley Homestead Association. "But we're about at the breaking point."
Still, many residents realize the problem is not the fault of government alone. Geographic isolation, the reluctance of business to invest in the area, high unemployment, widespread poverty and substance abuse, and an unwillingness on the part of some homeless to turn around their lives have all contributed to the mess.
Now, after years of disregard, the city and state have moved into action in unison cleaning up the coastline and assisting with the development of transitional shelters and affordable rental housing. Their aim is to give the community back its beach parks and the homeless a decent place to live. Residents express hope that conditions will improve.
'A BROADER ISSUE'
But how did it come to this?
"I think it's a much broader issue than just homelessness on the Leeward Coast," said Gov. Linda Lingle. "I feel that it is an area that has been neglected in many ways."
In that broader context, longtime residents see the homeless crisis as yet another indication of government's failure to adequately respond to the area's pressing social ills. They see the crisis as further evidence of the coast, home to a large concentration of Hawaiians, serving as the dumping ground for problems and facilities that the rest of O'ahu doesn't want.
"The government has failed the Leeward Coast," said Lori Watland Nordlum, whose family has lived there for decades. "The government has failed the Hawaiian people."
Indeed, the homeless crisis has intensified pressure on a Wai'anae healthcare system already straining to rein in major health problems, on public schools that have long struggled to educate children of families steeped in poverty and on a housing stock that doesn't come close to meeting the needs of the region's poorer residents.
Despite the dire need for affordable rentals, little has been built along the coast during the past decade, even though it has the highest concentration of homeless people in the state. It also has the highest percentage of residents living below poverty on O'ahu, the lowest per-capita income on the island, the highest jobless rate and among the most crowded homes all factors that contribute to the huge pent-up demand for affordable rentals.
Yet one 60-unit state rental project for low-income residents was so neglected that the government demolished it last year, saying the complex had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where renovation was no longer an option. It was one of only six state-run affordable rental projects along the coast.
NEW SHELTER COMING
Signs of progress on the housing front are beginning to surface, even if such efforts will put only a tiny dent in demand. With city and state help, several transitional and affordable rental projects are in the pipeline, and the state expects to open an emergency homeless shelter in Wai'anae by year's end.
On the health front, the surge in homelessness has ramped up pressure on the Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, the region's main provider of healthcare, especially for the poor. The facility has had a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of homeless patients treated in just the past year without a similar increase in funding to deal with the problem.
By various measures, the health profile of the Wai'anae Coast continues to reflect the worst marks on a statewide or countywide basis despite millions of dollars in government spending on healthcare. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments remain major problems, particularly among Hawaiians. Widespread poverty and an erosion of a cultural identity are among commonly cited factors.
With the added burden of caring for hundreds of new homeless patients, the coast is likely to see its health problems worsen before they get better. Many homeless residents aren't getting adequate medical care or are waiting until their ailments are especially acute before seeing a doctor, healthcare providers and beach residents say.
To address a wide variety of health issues throughout the Islands, the state is making changes to its insurance program for the poor, providing more emphasis on preventative care. It also has secured funding to get thousands of uninsured people under the coverage umbrella. One of the state's goals is to obtain measurable improvements in battling obesity, diabetes and other major diseases afflicting the state, including the homeless population.
Amid the backdrop of so many social problems, the area's public schools, already straining to lift performance levels of their students, are now having to deal with children living on the beach. Many lack even the basics, such as clean clothes and decent meals, that most other students take for granted. The homeless children often go to class ill-prepared to study or return to living environments with conditions terrible for doing homework.
The challenge faced by the schools shows up in this telling statistic: Nine of the 11 area schools are failing, based on federal measures tracking their annual progress in educating their pupils.
STATE, CITY RESPOND
Partly because of the coast's extreme homelessness and paralyzed public beaches, politicians have uncharacteristically taken notice. On June 27, Gov. Lingle not only attended a community meeting on homelessness in Wai'anae, but she brought her Cabinet with her.
Nine days after describing the area's homeless crisis as "something to be ashamed of," Lingle signed an emergency proclamation on July 6 to speed up the creation of emergency and transitional shelters.
In the upcoming legislative session, Lingle plans to focus on broader issues in the area, such as unemployment and building a stronger economy, acknowledging that the homeless crisis requires a multifaceted approach that goes far beyond just building shelters.
Although Lingle has been in office approaching four years, she only recently intensified efforts to deal with the coast's homeless problem, including appointing Kaulana Park in July to oversee those efforts.
Asked why it took so long for her administration to respond, Lingle noted that the Legislature only this year appropriated a substantial sum of money $40 million to spend on fixes, mostly for affordable housing and related programs.
Linda Smith, senior policy adviser to the governor, said the Lingle administration spent its first two years in office trying to turn the economy around to improve the state's tight fiscal situation. Only then, she added, did the administration have the wherewithal to address long-neglected problems, such as the lack of affordable housing.
Lingle also said homelessness historically has been the city's responsibility, but the problem has become so severe that the state has to help resolve it.
"I would agree with anyone who says we could do a much better job on the Leeward Coast in almost all areas," Lingle said. "And we're committed to doing that."
The city is stepping up efforts as well.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann has visited the area repeatedly, implemented broad improvement programs including beach park clean-ups, and vowed to work with the state to relieve the homeless problem while freeing up the coast's parks and beaches for public use once more.
"I'm trying to make up for years and years of neglect," said the mayor.
LACK OF CLOUT
The neglect that Lingle, Hannemann and others say has hurt the area stems in part from the community's lack of political clout. The coast's largest private employer, with about 450 workers, is the health center, a nonprofit organization that doesn't have the political muscle of a major corporation.
The area also has historically suffered from low voter turnout.
"Politicians tend to pay attention to places that vote," Hannemann said.
Still, residents on the Wai'anae Coast are pleasantly surprised about the recent political attention. At the same time they remain skeptical about what will come of it.
As far back as anyone can remember, said lifelong resident Verna Landford-Bright, the Wai'anae Coast has been looked upon as a place apart.
"Honolulu always treated us that way like we never were connected to that part of the island," said Landford-Bright, who is three-quarters Hawaiian and whose family has lived on the same Wai'anae Valley homestead for generations.
She believes people on the coast have been too soft-hearted for their own good.
"We take so much," she said. "We turn the other cheek, and turn the other cheek, until we've got no more cheek to turn. We take all that and then we're the first to take all the homeless."
She says folks on the Wai'anae Coast have done more than their fair share for too long. The rest of O'ahu, she added, has been only too willing to let them do it.