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

Wai'anae’s heart is big, but crisis growing bigger

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

By Will Hoover and Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writers

WAI'ANAE — It's easy to understand why residents in these parts take such pride in their beaches, which are among the most beautiful in the world. They also understand the reality of their current homeless plight. They know they've lost their beaches to the homeless, and they are uncomfortable about it. Yet they remain concerned and committed to those among them who have no place else to go.

"I know a lot of the community members were torn about this issue," said Patty Teruya, who chairs the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board. "Because it's like the community was going against our homeless people. And we don't want to do that."

It's this aspect of Wai'anae's communal character that often confounds outsiders. To those who live here, though, it's second nature.

"Part of the struggle out here is community culture," said Joseph Lapilio, who heads the Wai'anae Coast Coalition. "However you want to look at it — it's a tolerance, or maybe an over-tolerance, or an over-welcoming attitude. It took a while for the homeless problem to get to a threshold where everybody started moaning about it.

"We saw it happening. We saw more people on the beaches. But there was this live-and-let-live quality about it. That's not a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when it overwhelms you."

People here say homelessness started becoming a problem along the coast a decade or so back. About two years ago it started becoming a noticeable problem along the beach parks, and spread up and down the entire Wai'anae Coast during the past year.

Police here have had to factor an escalating number of illegal campers into a routine mix of crimes.

"Unfortunately a lot of the people we deal with on the beaches have substance abuse problems — whether it's alcohol or drugs," said Honolulu Police Department's Michael Tamashiro, who had been the major in command of police District 8, which includes the Wai'anae Coast. Tamashiro was promoted to assistant chief last month.

Lately, though, officers have seen the beaches increasingly inhabited by folks who have been priced out of their homes by a housing market that's seen home prices and rents rise dramatically since 2004.

Officer Tony Pacheco Jr., who's with the District 8 Community Policing Team, serves as a liaison between the Wai'anae Coast community and the police department. Born and raised on the Wai'anae Coast, he not only understands the community, he knows the people who live there. He said many beach dwellers he finds nowadays are his high school classmates or neighbors he's known all his life.

Pacheco understands the perception that most homeless people do crime and drugs.

"And yet the crime level has stayed the same while the number of homeless has gone up," said Pacheco, speaking for himself and not the department. "A lot of the homeless people I see on the beach, they don't do crime."

Those old enough to remember when Farrington Highway was two lanes say when the community was smaller and more close-knit, people with no place to live were uncommon.

"We didn't have homelessness when I was young," said Verna Landford-Bright, 55, who is three-quarters Hawaiian and whose family has lived on its own Wai'anae Valley homestead land since the 1800s. "If homeless people were camping on the beach, it was only until they could find a family to stay with."

That usually didn't take long, she said. There weren't many homeless, and those who were homeless back then were usually single men.

"My dad found one guy from the Mainland who didn't have a place to stay once and he brought him home," she said. "He became 'Uncle Dave.' He ended up getting a job, bought one of the service stations in Wai'anae, and married a local girl."

Today in Wai'anae whole families are camping on the beach. Gov. Linda Lingle has said what bothers her most is the spectre of hundreds of homeless children living in tents and makeshift dwellings without electricity or hot water.

Those who have watched the crisis mount say it's counter-productive to lump homeless people into one stereotypical camp. Homeless people with drug problems, those with mental troubles, and those who simply can no longer afford a home in a sizzling housing market should not be seeing the same social specialists, said Lapilio.

The state's comprehensive plan of moving beachside dwellers into emergency and transitional shelters and matching the various types of homeless people with experts who can actually assist them is a promising start, he said.

For some, it's been a long time coming.

"I'm glad, finally, that the politicians are recognizing that the homeless situation here is a big problem," said Teruya. "A lot of them did turn their heads on it."

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