HONOLULU – Two days before the city planned to dismantle her sidewalk home, Kionina Kaneso had no idea where she and her daughter and grandchildren would sleep.
A full-time fast-food worker, Kaneso had bad experiences at shelters before and was hesitant to live in another, ending up instead in one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. Desperate, she decided to try one again.
But there was no more space for families.
“Where can I go?” Kaneso asked.
Homelessness in Hawaii has grown in recent years, leaving the state with 487 homeless per 100,000 people, the nation’s highest rate per capita, above New York and Nevada, according to federal statistics. Since 2010, the rise has come even as the national rate has fallen during the economic recovery. The increase, driven by years of rising costs in the island chain, low wages and limited land, thrust the image of people sleeping on beaches alongside the state’s famed one of a relaxing tropical paradise.
Officials have tried to solve the problem. They’ve offered homeless services, banned sitting and lying on Waikiki’s sidewalks and proposed using shipping containers as temporary housing.
A survey by service providers in August of Kaneso’s encampment found that 42 percent of the nearly 300 people were families.
Kaneso is among the many Micronesians who moved to Hawaii in recent years as part of an agreement their nations have with the U.S. government allowing them to work and live in the country. They come for medical care, education and job opportunities.
Kaneso arrived in 2004 and worked odd jobs as a dishwasher and assembly line worker to pay for her son’s flight to Hawaii so he could get medical treatment for a heart condition.
While the state doesn’t have a break down by race of the overall homeless population, data on homeless shelter use show that 30 percent were Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian, 27 percent Micronesian, Marshallese or other Pacific Islanders, and 26 percent white. Micronesians say they face language barriers and discrimination. For Native Hawaiians, some of whom see the U.S. government as an occupier since a group of mainlanders overthrew the queen and took over their land, the influx of other Pacific Islanders using services adds insult to injury.
“We should be helped first, because we really are suffering,” said Deja-Lynn Rombawa-Quarles, a Native Hawaiian and camp resident.
The city tried to create a temporary safe zone in 2006 where the homeless could camp legally, but complaints ensued, so it ended up closing the park every night. Many of the homeless moved into hotel garages and walkways near Waikiki Beach.
Then the city banned sitting and lying down on sidewalks, a move backed by the Hyatt Regency, Hilton Worldwide and other major resorts, which generate much of Waikiki’s $6.8 billion in annual tourism revenue.
The hotels saw fewer homeless people, who then moved into other neighborhoods, prompting more complaints.
“People cannot camp and take over parts of our city and state property that has been built and designed for everyone, not one specific group,” said Mayor Kirk Caldwell, after a group meeting on homelessness in September. “It’s not safe.”
Honolulu spends $15,000 a week to sweep away the camps. During the sweeps, families lost possessions like the wood they use to build their structures, found furniture and clothes. Some have filed a lawsuit against the raids. Service providers say 40 percent of Hawaii’s homeless people are working at least part-time, 30 percent need some housing assistance and 30 percent have mental health or substance abuse problems that prevent them from maintaining a home.