The mothers of the two teenage boys who allegedly attacked state Rep. Tom Brower last week ended up living on the same Kakaako sidewalk with their sons after taking different, circuitous routes to homelessness.
Although they have different reasons for being out of work and homeless on Ohe Street across from the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, Agnes Totoa, 44, and Rose Pu‘u, 45, agree on one thing:
They hate raising their children in an ever-expanding homeless encampment.
"It’s embarrassing living out here," Totoa said. "But I have nowhere else to go."
Pu‘u added: "Stand in the middle of the road and look up and down the street. What do you see? Tents. This life right here ain’t no life."
Totoa and Pu‘u are in-laws related through marriage and spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on separate days after their sons — ages 14 and 17 — were questioned by an investigator from the state Attorney General’s Office. According to Honolulu police, the attorney general is investigating the June 29 attack on Brower as he photographed the encampment that winds around the discovery center, Kakaako Waterfront Park and the University of Hawaii medical school.
The boys insist that Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) refused to stop taking pictures of them and laughed at them, which Brower disputes.
"I wasn’t laughing at anyone or taunting anyone," he told the Star-Advertiser.
Brower’s frequent ally in the Legislature, Vice Speaker John Mizuno (D, Kamehameha Heights-Kalihi Valley), met with the boys and their families after Brower’s attack, along with social workers and state Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point).
Mizuno said the mothers’ stories of how they ended up on Ohe Street illustrate some of the many reasons people become homeless.
"It’s heart-wrenching," Mizuno said. "The general statement from the public is they’re lazy, ‘Just go get a job.’ I’ve said it numerous times: Homelessness is a complex issue and there are many reasons why families fall into this terrible plight."
He maintains the attack on Brower and the subsequent attention it has drawn to the Kakaako homeless encampment could be the spark that brings city and state officials together to find long-term solutions for a problem that so far has eluded easy fixes.
"I’m part of the system, and the state and counties have been kicking the can down the road for years," Mizuno said. "The Brower incident — as unfortunate as it is and as close as I am to Brower — will be a game-changer in how we deal with the homeless situation. Sometimes you need something like this to get a tsunami of support."
Mizuno often uses his own money and personal airline miles to send homeless people to live with family on the mainland. And he has pledged to help Totoa, her husband, adult daughter and the son who admitted attacking Brower get airline tickets so they can live with Totoa’s adult daughter in Virginia — if and when a possible criminal case is resolved.
"Sometimes there’s a silver lining in a bad incident," Mizuno said.
Totoa welcomes any help.
Her family relies on $800 in monthly food stamps, sporadic feedings by churches and organizations that set up tables around the homeless encampment, and visits by social workers who drop off water and other supplies.
Otherwise, they have no money.
She was born in American Samoa but raised on Oahu, where she attended Mililani and Waipahu high schools. Beginning in 1986, she and her husband, Totoa Totoa Jr., 46, enjoyed a nice life in Anchorage, Alaska, where they lived in an apartment. She worked as a caregiver and her husband was a warehouseman.
Three years ago, Totoa Totoa’s mother died on Oahu and the family came back for the funeral and to care for Totoa Totoa’s father in his apartment at Kuhio Park Terrace.
But the family did not have permission to live at the housing project.
"There were family frictions," Agnes Totoa said. "Plus, I didn’t want to get my father-in-law kicked out."
The family slept at Kakaako’s Next Step Shelter for about 18 months, but always had to find someplace to go during the day and finally moved to Ohe Street in August or September.
Because of diabetes, Agnes Totoa had all of the toes on her right foot amputated and now has difficulty working. Totoa Totoa got fired from a dishwashing job he liked because he had to walk to work and was frequently late.
Now he spends much of his days fixing donated bikes, which he gives to the homeless children who ride them around the encampment.
At night, Agnes often has trouble sleeping, worried that someone will enter her family’s various tents.
With no job and no way to provide a home, Agnes also has trouble getting respect from her teenage son, who just recently got his girlfriend pregnant.
"I don’t want my grandbaby to be born out here," Agnes said. "I want to start a fresh new life and erase these memories of here."
Pu‘u, a Farrington graduate, also receives $800 in monthly food stamps.
She has seven children, ages 10 to 30. The father of some of her children is in prison.
"I’ve been on my own since I was 15," she said.
Pu‘u most recently became homeless after she escaped from an abusive relationship three years ago and temporarily lived in a shelter for domestic violence victims.
She also lived for about a year at the Next Step Shelter but got into a dispute when her belongings were thrown out, including her children’s birth certificates.
Her three teenage boys choose to live with Pu‘u on the street to watch over her. Pu‘u’s youngest lives with his grandmother.
Her two adult daughters live on Oahu and sometimes buy things for her and the boys. Asked why she doesn’t move in with either of her daughters, Pu‘u said she doesn’t want to be a burden.
"I don’t like to live with anyone — even my own kids," she said.
She constantly applies for work — "from security to McDonald’s" — but never gets called back on her cellphone.
"It’s hard to get back on your feet," Pu‘u said.
Most of all, Pu‘u worries about the lessons her children are learning.
"I’m doing my best," she said. "But I cannot be a role model to them."
Asked how concerned she is that her 14-year-old son will be arrested for attacking Brower, Pu‘u said: "On a scale from 1 to 10, go to 11. I worry about everything."
She also takes responsibility for her situation — and for trying to change it.
"My hope is getting one job and getting off the street," Pu‘u said. "No one can make it come true except me."
But Mizuno said it’s up to the community at large to understand that there are many reasons why people become homeless — and it’s the responsibility of state and county officials to find solutions.
"The public just doesn’t understand that this is a very complex issue," Mizuno said. "It’s unfortunate because we see this movie playing again and again and again. We have to get to a point where we’re all working on this together at the same time."