Hawaii now has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the U.S., according to the 2014 State of Homelessness in America report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Despite Hawaii’s sizable homeless population, the state reports only a 5 percent unemployment rate, pointing to increasing housing costs as a reason for the increase. Housing costs in Hawaii are some of the highest in the nation.
About 600 of Hawaii’s homeless moved to the state in the past 12 months, and about 1,600 arrived within the past five years, according to a study from the University of Hawaii. Figures from Hawaii’s Human Services Department tally some 4,700 homeless in Oahu alone, with roughly 2,200 among the neighboring islands, according to Aljazeera.
Soaring housing costs could offer some insight into Hawaii’s homeless rates, which have kept even those with jobs out of reliable and affordable housing. The median rent in Honolulu for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,800 per month, one of the country’s highest, reports The Economist. Hawaii’s minimum wage was raised to $10.10 an hour in May, marking the first hike since 2007.
In 2014, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed three bills, making sitting or lying on sidewalks a misdemeanor in the Waikiki district, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or as many as 30 days in jail. The bills also included a ban on public urination or defecation. According to Caldwell, the new legislation is meant not to punish the homeless, but to get them into shelters and off the streets.
The bans are part of Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” policies, aimed at addressing the island’s rampant homelessness. Caldwell’s administration also plans to relocate 100 “chronic homeless” to Sand Island, an industrial site away from the bustling tourist areas. In 2013, an ordinance was passed in Honolulu, which allowed city authorities to remove any items from the sidewalk that might be deemed a “public nuisance,” including tents, food, medication and other personal items.
Many homeless advocates decry compassionate disruption policies, arguing that the policies are meant to move homeless out of view of the tourist industry, rather than improve their situation. Tourism in Hawaii is a $14.5 billion industry, with Waikiki businesses at the epicenter. Executive director, Kathryn Xian, of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery refers to Sand Island as a “de facto internment camp.” Sand Island was in fact an internment camp during World War II, used to detain Americans of Japanese descent. In recent years, the site has been used for solid waste disposal and a sewage treatment plant.
Crackdowns on homelessness have been a nationwide trend in recent years, with over 20 cities making it illegal to feed the homeless in public places. While The State of Homelessness in America report shows the number of homeless decreasing across the nation, affordable housing has seen a clear decline, as well. Nearly 13 percent of affordable housing—defined as not costing more than 30 percent of a family’s income—has disappeared since 2001. According to the National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, there has been an increase in recent years of laws banning sleeping in cars and tents, and loitering and panhandling in public places.
Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless calls the bans counterproductive, saying that costly penalties imposed for such activities keep struggling individuals in a cycle of poverty and tarnish the records of law-abiding citizens, making it even harder for them to get on their feet. According to The Economist, such laws have made it more difficult for social services to keep track of the increasingly transient homeless, many of whom have abandoned sleeping in the touristy Waikiki district in favor of sleeping at the airport.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa
Photo by: Surfing The Nations – Flickr License