Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rethinking the Homeless

Ever hear of a movie called “Hobo with a Shotgun?” No really, it’s real. Rutger Hauer plays a homeless vigilante who takes on a crime boss in a small town with, well, a shotgun. It’s really violent, and unless you liked “Grindhouse” or “Death Wish,” you probably shouldn’t watch this film.
The title and the movie play upon the unfair stereotype of homeless men and women. They are depicted as dirty nomads, who are mentally unstable. Seems like the only time the individual homeless make the news is when something dramatic happens as in Engling’s case.
In April, this paper devoted multiple stories to Alan Engling—the fifty-nine year-old man who was indicted for assaulting golfers and police officers at the Maui Country Club in Sprecklesville with a pellet gun. Emphasizing Engling’s homelessness does not help fight the stereotype.
Stories about individual men and women who have no homes are almost always bad news. In this paper uses the word as a moniker for dangerous criminal defendants: homeless man assaulted another homeless man with a bottle; police are looking for two homeless men who allegedly attacked someone; a homeless woman given probation (and jail) for stabbing another at a camp. The stereotype doesn’t help anyone.
People end up without a place to live for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s caused by drug and alcohol abuse, a lack of affordable mental health care services, and sometimes those who have been released from prison or jail have no place to go. Then there are the financial reasons. Hawaii is expensive. A study back in 2009 showed that the tight housing market and mortgage foreclosures were common reasons for families living in cars or ending up on the streets.
The homeless population has become more and more visible these days. In Honolulu, people sleep in the streets and “camp” in tents on sidewalks. In places like Chinatown, the sight of upper and middle class bar hoppers cautiously stepping over men and women curling up against doorways or underneath defunct bus stops is disturbing to say the least.
In greater Oahu, the homeless have gathered in camps along the Waianae Coast. They live deep in thickets of keawe trees, look out for one another, and even have representatives that present their needs at community forums.
The City took an aggressive stance toward the homeless. This year it passed a law prohibiting tents and shopping carts in all city parks. The council also changed the hours to major parks and closed them from midnight to 5:00 a.m. And years ago, former mayor Mufi Hanneman notoriously ordered the uprooting of entire populations on the leeward side.
Maui has its population too. A few years ago, the police cleared out a large camp that had been established right outside of Lahaina, just across the highway from Puamana Beach. Since then, Wailuku has become a new spot for folks to gather and walk around all day and night. Or perhaps you may have seen a few people pushing a shopping wagons into the bushes in Kahului. Maybe you’ve noticed folks who perpetually live at Kanaha Beach Park in an old tent faded from the sun or in a beat up van.
The latest came this year when our Legislature considered a pilot program with the Department of Human Services to give homeless persons a one-way ticket to the mainland. The bill was modeled after the controversial measure put in place in New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007.
It would have required a person without a home—presumably living in shelters, on the beach, or elsewhere—to consent to the deportation and then clear a clean bill of health. At that point, they’d be whisked away to the mainland with no intention to return. Critics called this a legislative blessing on mass deportation. Proponents, on the other hand, said it was completely voluntary and that they wanted to leave.
The governor also tried his hand at solving the problem. In 2011, Governor Abercrombie wanted to reduce homelessness dramatically within 90 days. The government drew criticism, however, when he encouraged people not to feed the homeless because it would encourage others to become homeless.
Government responses have been tepid. The bill that would have bought a one-way ticket died in the House, and never made it to the governor’s desk for signature. The governor’s plan has brought only taken 500 people off the streets statewide. In the meantime, the tent city on the leeward coast thrives and the folks living out of shopping carts are still in need.

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