Friday, July 18, 2014

Honolulu's War Against the Homeless

            A war is raging on Oahu. Months ago, Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell declared a “war on homelessness.” “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city,” he wrote. The mayor picked his words very carefully. Caldwell has picked up on the rhetorical “war” against an abstract problem reminiscent of another rhetorical war declared many years ago.
            Fifty years ago, in a State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. His speech marked the beginning of a blitz of legislation designed to eradicate the conditions that put Americans in dire economic straits. It led to the Head Start program, Job Corps, the Upward Bound program, Medicare and Medicaid, and food stamps.
            Fifty years later we have Caldwell’s war—and although the rhetoric is the same, there are vast differences. And that’s too bad. A war on homelessness could further Johnson’s dream. Back in 1964, he said that “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.”
            Surly Caldwell could have used the fiftieth anniversary of Johnson’s declaration as to revive the optimism from 1964. We could use this as an opportunity to work on eradicating the conditions that result in homelessness, not just the homeless. It could be focused on working closely with communities, mental health providers, and other factors that contribute to the homeless population in Hawaii.
            But that doesn’t seem to be happening in Honolulu. The homeless are an eyesore. That’s what’s troubling the mayor there. In an interview with the New York Times, Caldwell defended these tactics.
            He said that we “haven’t eliminated the visual impact of homelessness.” Caldwell said that when tourists come to Hawaii and stay in Waikiki, “they don’t want to see homeless people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks or on the beach.”
            It’s hard to argue against that. I’m sure people who spend all that money to fly here and stay in a luxurious hotel don’t want to see folks with no place to go sleeping on benches or in the park. Public parks are closed at night and the police sweep through to make sure the homeless aren’t near Waikiki.
            The other sensitive spot is Chinatown and Downtown. The City Council declared the area from Nuuanu Stream to Ward Avenue to be “the center of Oahu’s art scene and is a hot spot for Oahu nightlife, with live music and shows, as well as some of Hawaii’s most contemporary restaurants and gathering spots.” In the last decade Chinatown has become a gentrified hot spot with plenty of galleries, shops, and eateries.
            After all, who wants to have to tip toe around people trying to sleep in doorways or along the sidewalk on their way to check out the latest restaurant or bar? First Fridays in Chinatown are wildly popular and all those homeless people would just dampen the party atmosphere. It might just make all those partygoers feel uncomfortable on their way home.
            So instead of lofty legislation designed to study the issue and alleviate the causes contributing to homelessness, the City Council is mulling over two bills punishing the homeless. One bill criminalizes defecating and urinating in public. Ironically, it would also criminalize peeing in pools or in the ocean. Watch out, kids. If you’re caught peeing in the pool or trying to reenact the infamous Baby Ruth scene from “Caddyshack,” you may be prosecuted, face a judge in the district court, and could face up to thirty days in jail and a $1000 fine.
            The other bill is even more troubling. It would make sitting or lying on a public sidewalk a crime. Of course, there were a number of exceptions that would allow people to watch parades or standing in a line for “goods or services.” Nowhere in the bill or in its legislative findings was the word “homeless,” but everyone knows the true target of these bills.
        On the other hand, these aren’t the only efforts by the City. In addition to these controversial bills, the Council authorized $47 million to set up low-cost housing. Moreover, the governor has recently appointed a coordinator to work with the city government, the State, and the private sector to get folks out of the elements and into a shelter or some kind of housing.
            In that sense, Caldwell’s war on homelessness bears some resemblance to the old War on Poverty, but the new tactics against the homeless themselves are an extreme. Johnson declared a war on poverty, not the poor. Seems like these days we just want to sweep away homeless people along with homelessness.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Mysterious Plate Lunch

Two scoop rice, mac salad, and some meat like teriyaki chicken, a hamburger patty covered in brown gravy, or pork adobo on top of that little bed of shredded cabbage all within the confines of a square, white styrofoam box. Sound familiar? You can pick up one of these plate lunches on any island in just about any town.
The plate lunch is a quintessential local food in the islands. It’s ubiquitous and anyone who grew up in Hawaii can recall a favorite plate lunch spot. Maybe it was Sushiya’s on Prison Street in Lahaina, or maybe your go-to spot was Kitada’s on Baldwin Avenue in Makawao. It’s not just Maui either. Even the president has to get his fix at the Rainbow Drive-Inn in Kapahulu.
The plate lunch is a statewide food tradition. You can’t escape it. I’ve been around plate lunches for most of my life. The three perfectly-shaped mounds of rice and mac salad doused in high-sodium shoyu are part of growing up here. But where this food tradition came from is still a culinary mystery.
Perhaps the most common theory is what I call the plantation theory. It goes like this: in those allegedly halcyon days of plantation labor when almost everyone worked in sugar cane or pineapple fields, lived in substandard housing provided by big companies, folks found themselves in a mix (and sometimes clash) of different cultures.
Out of this milieu came the plate lunch. One can easily conjure up the sepia-toned image of Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino workers sitting down in the middle of a dirty cane field on their lunch breaks sharing and mixing foods.
The theory makes sense. Most of local culture—pidgin English and mixed ethnicities—came from the plantation. Why should food have a different starting point?
And yet, the more I thought about it, there are problems with this theory. Let’s not be fooled. Plantations were brutal and terrible places for many people. Mixing culture was not encouraged. Workers were separated by race in almost every respect. The Japanese could only associate with the Japanese. Filipinos were also segregated. The Portuguese had their own part of town. The white managers were at the top of the heap. The thought that everyone would break free from these restrictions in the middle of the day every day and sit down together to share each other’s food seems a little hard to swallow.
And even if that was the case, why is the plate lunch today so uniform? Not all plantations were the same throughout the islands. Yet, the plate lunch is pretty much the same throughout the State.
Finally, there’s the mac salad problem. The plantation theory doesn’t adequately explain how mac salad got into the mix. What culture brought that over from Asia? Who’d bring that for lunch? Nobody had a refrigerator in their plantation home or in the field. Would you eat mac salad from a tin can that’s been on your back since five in the morning and under the hot sun?
In the late 1980s, a new theory emerged. Writers at the now defunct Honolulu Herald found anecdotal evidence that the plate lunch got its start at Honolulu Harbor in the 1920s, not the anonymous cane field.
The Iwamoto family started selling foods, snacks, and candies to dockworkers, stevedores, and even tourists from cruise ships on the Honolulu waterfront in the 1920s from a rickety pushcart.
The cart became so popular that the Iwamotos rented space on Channel Street near the waterfront with a small kitchen. By the 1930s, for fifty cents, you got a paper plate with rice, a vegetable, kim chee and a main dish like beef tomato, pigs feet, or chicken long rice. And yes, there was mac salad.
This also explained how it became standardized throughout the islands. If the plate lunch was popular in the busiest harbor in the territory, it can easily catch on as workers stopped in Lahaina, Hilo, and Lihue.
And yet, the plantation theory dies hard. Many food writers think that the Japanese bento found on the plantation evolved into these food stands on the waterfront and later lunch wagons.
No matter where it came from, the plate lunch tradition isn’t going anywhere. For the record, my favorite plate lunch is the glorious chicken katsu curry plate.
Maybe the first time mayonnaise from the mac salad mixed with the curry on top of the chicken cutlet was at Honolulu Harbor. Or maybe it came from a lunch wagon someplace. Then again, it could have started on a nameless pineapple field in Wahiawa.

Frankly, I doubt we’ll ever find out definitely where the plate lunch came from. But who cares? It’s fun to think about while recovering from eating one on a hot summer afternoon.

A very brief history of soccer in Hawaii

Where’s the best place to ignore the biggest, most anticipated, and most watched sporting event on the planet? The United States. It’s obvious that the most popular game in the world is not popular here.
Soccer has managed to circle the globe and become the preferred and popular sport in nearly every country on every continent, except our own. For years, soccer has struggled in the United States. And right now we’re in the middle of the biggest event the sport has to offer.
The World Cup is a soccer tournament held every four years. The top national teams compete to determine the best soccer team on the earth. Every four years—just like the Olympics—a different country hosts the tourney. This time the host country is also one of the most fanatical soccer cultures around: Brazil.
Soccer as we know it became popular in England and Scotland in the nineteenth century. From there, it took over the world. Wherever they went (and they went just about everywhere back then), soccer followed. In most places, it stuck and soccer cultures developed. For example, Brazilian and Argentinian futbol blossomed when Scottish and English engineers, schoolteachers, merchants, and rail workers went to build the railways of South America in the 1860s and ‘70s.
It didn’t catch on in the United States. Folks played it early on, but it never took off like the way football, basketball, and baseball became part of our sports culture.
But that still doesn’t explain Hawaii. The Hawaiian Kingdom had many English and Scottish expats and visitors. Surely they brought with them their love of the game. And yet, there’s no real evidence that soccer came with them.
The rest of the Pacific doesn’t have much of a soccer culture either. The Oceania Football Confederation includes national teams from Tahiti, New Zealand, and Vanuatu is by far one of the weakest in the world. No countries from this conference made it to the World Cup.
Then again, perhaps soccer was introduced early on by the English and Scots in Hawaii. Perhaps they did play it. Maybe Honolulu was the spot where the first soccer game in Hawaii was played.
No one really knows for sure. The earliest evidence of organized teams date back to the early twentieth century, but by then there were established teams with uniforms, organization, and a league. The Honolulu Advertiser ran a story in 1905 about a fierce competition between “Kams and the YWCA.” Apparently, Kams won 12 to 9—a shocking number of goals by any standard.
Photographs dating back to 1906 show a team of young women and men at Oahu College posing in uniforms. (Oahu College eventually became Punahou School). But this wasn’t just a game for private schools kids. In 2013, a historian out of Hilo discovered another fascinating photograph from the same time period. It’s a postcard depicting a soccer team dressed in all-white with small collared jerseys, shorts, and heavy boots of the early twentieth century. Apparently, they were the team representing the Olaa Sugar Company.
Olaa is gone now, but in its heyday, the plantation town in Puna on the Big Island near what is now called Volcano. It was the classic sugar plantation town. Strangely, no one in the photograph looked Asian. They were all Portuguese, Spanish, or haole.
The game got more popular over time. By 1910, there were established teams on the Big Island and Maui. By the 1920s, teams from different sugar mills and from schools like Punahou and Kamehameha Schools competed regularly.
It’s been here ever since. Folks gather to play on fields nearly every day of the week all over the island. The folks who play here come from all over the world. Out here in the middle of the Pacific you can find a single game with players from just about every continent.
Maui, after all, is a great place to play soccer. The weather is ideal year round and our public parks have something that many other countries can’t offer the public. My Brazilian friend once told me how lucky we are to live (and play the game) on Maui. Any patch of grass in Brazil, he said, automatically is destroyed by kids playing soccer.
The only place where you can actually see the game being played on grass is on television or in a stadium. Grass fields are just not available for most of the public. In the images coming from Brazil, you can see street kids playing in dirt lots or in the sand on the beach.

It really puts it in perspective. Perhaps it’s best to keep soccer a secret after all.

The Case for Probation (in Just About Every Case)

            Imagine having to report to a person in an office every week. If you are late or forget, you could go to jail. Imagine having to keep a job or go to school full time. If not, you could go to jail or at the very least explain to a judge why you shouldn’t go to jail. If you want to visit the mainland or even Oahu, you have to check in and get permission from an officer of the court. If not, you could be considered an absconder and may be arrested.
In some cases, you could get a curfew. If you’re out after dark, you could get arrested. Perhaps you have to pay for an assessment to see if you are a drug addict or an alcoholic. On top of that, you may have to pay court fees and fines on a monthly rate for four years or until it’s all paid up. These are the most basic conditions of probation.
            This paper duly reports on the fates of criminal defendants. These pages feature colorful quotations from judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and sometimes the defendants themselves sensationalize the event of a sentencing hearing. Details about the offense are described. Sometimes it seems innocuous. Other times it could be horrifying.
But no matter what the offense is, the end is always the same: the judge issues his or her sentence. Sometimes it’s prison. A defendant is carted away by the sheriffs.
And then there’s probation.           I’m always struck by the letters of outrage to the sentencing judges that order a person to be put on probation instead of prison. One thing the paper never really discusses is probation. What exactly is it? Is it hard? Why is it such a common disposition in a criminal case—even when there are crimes of violence?
            Here are the basics. Probation is an alternative to prison. Instead of going off to places like Halawa prison on Oahu or private facilities in Arizona, the probationer stays right here and out of custody. Rather than being under surveillance and guarded twenty-four hours a day with the State footing the bill for housing, meals, and medical services, the burden shifts to the probationer to find a clean and decent place to live, get a job, and become a productive member of the community.
The only real catch is that the court orders a list of conditions by which the defendant is required to abide.         The most common condition is checking in with a probation officer. These officers work for the judiciary and keep track of the probationer’s progress. If the court orders complete sobriety and drug testing, it’s the probation officer’s job to do that. Probationers are required to keep a job or go to school full time. Most importantly, they are not allowed to pick up another conviction.
            If a probationer violates the terms, his probationary status could be revoked and the judge would sentence him or her all over again. In some cases, he could get probation all over again and the actual sentence could even be longer than a prison sentence.
            So why do people get so upset when a person is sentenced to probation? Why is there such a vehement demand for prison? Prison is a very hard on the defendant. Prison rips a person out of the community and family life. The prisoner is left in isolation where he or she acquires no skills, formal education, or training. It doesn’t encourage anyone to do anything but wait for the term to end.
            It’s costly for the community too, but stats are hard to come by. Each state has a different bill to house prisoners. Alabama, for example, spends something like $17,285 a year for a single inmate. New York City, on the other hand, spends a whopping $168,000. Hawaii is in the middle. The State Attorney General reported that in 2009, it cost $118 a day for a single inmate, which comes to about $43,000 a year.
Probation—without guards, meals, shelter, and medical services—is certainly cheaper. On top of that, the probationer is required to be productive. They have to keep jobs and probation officers almost always require pay stubs as proof of employment. They have to pay off fines and any restitution.

Seems like a win-win situation for society and the probationer. And yet, we still demand prison for folks who’ve been sentenced. Granted, punishment is always a factor to consider at sentencing, but it’s not the only one. It should never be the main reason to sentence somebody. There will always be those who wish to indulge in the need to severely punish offenders. But prison isn’t a solution for most folks. We just can’t afford it.