Homeless in North Hawaii: Rubber slippers next to golden slippers

  • Grossman

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on how the homeless population in Waimea and throughout North Hawaii is growing. Part one deals with real-life homeless people and how politicians are looking at the problem. Part two on Friday will address treatments for the social disorder in North Hawaii.

WAIMEA — Earlier this month, in the unforgiving security light above a deserted lanai in Waimea, a man and a woman sat in the middle of all they owned: a bulging backpack, black garbage bags with red ties, T-shirts and other loose clothes, a squished pack of cigarettes, two bottles of Tussin cough syrup and a smartphone.

When asked what could improve her life, the woman said, “Get higher up on the list.”

Which list? There are many. The Federal Section 8 Voucher program exhausted its funding two years ago with almost 5,000 names dying on the vine.

The man had a headlamp strapped around his forehead. He was shy at first, but eventually spoke.

“People are judging us all the time,” he said, “but we’re not bad humans.”

At first he said he had been employed. He’d been in recovery, with four months clean.

“But they said, ‘Oh, call me and I’ll take you to a meeting,’ but then you call and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not in town now,” he said.

The woman huddled next to him would be at risk for abuse if he were not there. It was an odd family portrait: nearly prehistoric, huddled around not a fire but a smartphone.

They stand in North Hawaii checkout lines with green stamps, their rubber slippers next to the golden-slippered ones from nice subdivisions. But milk costs the same, whatever shoes you wear.

Mayor Harry Kim’s reflection that the problem is the gap “between the haves and the have-nots” rings true, an insight shared by District 9 Councilman Tim Richards. It’s a situation especially vexing for those he calls “the retiree ‘kupuna’ that we may price/tax out of their homes.” Often, added Richards in a May 5 email interview, they turn to their children, the young families already having a hard time paying Hawaii’s inflated rents and mortgages.

Or, like Reynard Mossman, 65, they wind up on the street. He has been in Waimea seeking protection from the elements for years. But the chances are that as most pass his weekend home behind a gas station, they don’t pay much attention to his dark shape slumped over in the shadows, presumably sleeping off the previous night’s indiscretions. But that’s not true.

Mossman is disabled by diabetes, with dreadfully swollen and bruised lower legs. On a recent Saturday he was found surrounded by all his earthly goods — a bursting luggage pack, cigarettes, a nearly empty bottle of Gatorade, an old Blackberry, his cane and a wallet stuffed with business cards, including his doctor’s.

But he can’t call his doctor. Pointing to a shiny outlet shield recessed into the concrete wall next to him, Mossman said, “They disconnected the power.” Then, brightening a little, he praised the wheels on his new pack, “The old one was hard to carry.”

He didn’t state the obvious: wheels don’t help much if you can hardly walk.

Not every story is that moving. Arlene Block, a long-time volunteer at Waimea’s Nature Park, complained bitterly about a messy camp behind Longs, 30 feet from a community trail.

“Why can’t they pick up?” she said. It wasn’t a question.

The transients’ uncollected trash is the principal complaint across North Hawaii.

The next day, three older men sat around a Waimea picnic table drinking vodka and hurling insults at each other affectionately. Cleaned up and shaved, they could have been the neighbors having a weekend party in their garage.

Butch, an elderly but rugged, sunburned senior could not be understood, even when he covered the hole in his throat, so he scribbled his story on a paper shopping bag. It was a model of English clarity: “Retired senior citizen; VA pension, SSI; Disabled Vietnam Vet.” And last, written with visible hurt, “My family here since 1882.”

But there are others not as admirable.

Nicky, 55, said he’d been in jail most of his life. While the other men were rational and comfortable speaking to the newspaper, this fellow interjected constantly with lewd jokes and references. He claimed that he’d mastered dozens of marketable skills, but it was hard to believe anything he said except that he’d rather panhandle than work.

Scott, a transient from Hilo, was a different breed of cat. He’d been on the road since his father threw him out of his home in West Virginia more than 30 years ago. He’s 55.

“I like my life. I choose to live this way. I’m free,” he laughed. “The only drawback is my retirement program.”

In front of him on the table was a massive, worn paperback. Scott seemed to be a sort of North Hawaii Jack Kerouac. His world was a risky one, largely outside the law and especially dangerous for women.

“Most women got a guy to protect them,” he said. “Otherwise they can just get dragged off and raped. It’s not safe.”

The homeless population seems to spread over the entire spectrum of human behavior, from peaceful to vicious. They’re not so different from the rest of the island’s residents with roofs over their heads.

Not much comfort can be extracted from Gov. David Ige’s report earlier this month that the number of homeless on Hawaii Island has plummeted, especially in contrast to Mayor Kim’s revelation in late March that 80,000 Big Island people are at risk of homelessness.

The state’s “Point in Time Count Report,” released May 10, had fundamental weaknesses according to volunteers who have participated in past counts and are familiar with the data collection methodology and the report’s authors themselves.

“Last year, the homeless were alerted in advance,” said Kawaihae resident Rhonda Bell, who heads The Big Island Giving Tree, and was a 2016 volunteer. “They didn’t show. In fact,” she added, “homeless people were advised by their friends not to participate.”

From her weekly contact with hundreds of homeless people as a free food provider and friend over the past several years, she knows who they are and where they sleep. As the report admits, “Many unsheltered homeless refuse to take the PIT survey.”

There are also continuing problems “with unknown or missing information” and further, that “large numbers of staff and volunteers without adequate training continue to enter survey data,” as stated in the Report.

An organized, public drive to count such a shy and transient population is the very definition of herding cats.

Particularly nettlesome was Mayor Kim’s March report noting that thousands of Big Island residents are “at risk” for homelessness. When Assistant Housing Administrator Lance Niimi pressed Kim about this alarming number personally on May 8, Kim couldn’t identify the source of the statistic.

“At Risk” includes, according to public standards, any family experiencing either one of two traumas: the loss of three paychecks in a row, or the loss of the main breadwinner’s job. Forty percent means that for every five people you see in North Hawaii, two are in danger. The PIT Report’s claim of a 40 percent drop in homelessness might be optimistic at best.

Richards tends to agree, “I question the validity of this statement as these are estimates at best.”

He said he is working “to get better numbers” and said he expects to have them within two weeks.

If Mayor Kim, as well as reliable contacts on the ground are to be believed, North Hawaii’s homeless problem is not in remission. Even one good but unfortunate senior citizen with diabetes, suffering in the shadows with a cold cellphone and a pack that rolls, sounds more like a catastrophe.

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