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Editorial | Island Voices

Sweeping the homeless toward crime and conflict

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There’s been a lot of attention lately on rising crime in Kakaako. Headlines leave the impression that “the homeless” there have suddenly grown more lawless and violent. Most media coverage misses an important root cause of this trend: our own government policy of “sweeping” homeless people from around Honolulu into one area.

I spent several days this summer living in the Kakaako homeless camp to get to know the people there myself. I saw firsthand how the sit-lie ban and stepped-up sweeps contribute to crime there. These policies have forced people from areas like Waikiki and Downtown into Kakaako over the past several months. Some, with mental health issues, were deliberately living in areas where they could avoid other people. Others, plagued with addiction, were living in areas with ready access to drugs.

Now, everyone is being squeezed into Kakaako, with dealers and other predators in tow — forced to live in close proximity to each other and alongside families and individuals who have been encamped there for years. Add to this forced-mix the unusual heat this summer and accompanying sleep deprivation and you’ve packed gunpowder into a barrel. Fights, theft, assaults and other crimes go up, with most victims being homeless people themselves.

During my brief time in camp, I saw our stretch of tents change from a relatively peaceful neighborhood to a raucous and sometimes scary place. When I arrived, nights were quiet after 9 p.m., save for barking dogs and crying infants. A few days into my stay, newcomers turned the nights into rowdy affairs lasting past midnight. Basic rules of camp, like emptying the communal garbage bag, broke down. Tempers flared. A friend who had lived there for months without incident had her most treasured possession stolen — a guitar that was a birthday gift from her father. The prime suspects were newcomers who’d recently been forced out of Downtown.

Headlines like “Assaults in Kakaako soaring” (Star-Advertiser, July 23) make it sound as though “the homeless” have suddenly decided to indulge in a spree of crime and violence. They sweep the homeless under blanket statements and leave root causes unexamined. We may all end up paying the price for this chronic overgeneralization, for it leads to misdirected public outrage, and misguided public policy.

My stay in Kakaako challenged many of my own preconceived notions about people living there. My neighbors were a young couple, a family with three children, and an aunty who took it upon herself to look after me. They gave me advice on where to set up my tent and how to keep it cool during the heat wave of July. They watched out for my things when I was away. They regularly offered me food, though they had little themselves. I was humbled by their generosity and grateful for their guidance.

There were also bad actors in camp — people who might steal from you and beat you for confronting them. There were teens spoiling for a fight. There were people who, forced by sweeps to live in close quarters, were exposed to temptations and frustrations that they used to avoid by living in relative isolation. Still, on balance, I experienced far more kindness than menace in camp.

Mine was only a brief glimpse into the lives of individuals and communities (plural) that comprise “the homeless” in Kakaako. It does not make me an expert on homelessness, and I do not claim my views are authoritative. But, I think this point stands: We don’t need to look very hard to see the diversity and humanity in the people camped at Kakaako. We also don’t have to look hard to see how our own beliefs and policies are contributing to the very problems we decry, problems like “soaring assaults” by “the homeless.”

Please, let’s take a closer look at “the homeless” before we decide what to do about “them.” With a little effort, we may see their problems and ours more clearly, and create more effective, long-term solutions to this growing crisis.

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