Thousands of homeless live in tents on Hawaii's beaches

Economic pressure, rising drug problems drive families into trouble in paradise

September 12, 2006|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WAIANAE, Hawaii -- The home sits on property with a million-dollar view, but its plastic roof is held down by bungee cords, its only source of lighting is a few crude lanterns, its floor is covered with sand.

From here, Bert Bustamante looks out on paradise. Each evening, the sunset turns the Pacific Ocean several shades of pink and orange, turquoise and glowing blue. The dolphins come, and the whales, sometimes the seals. Bustamante's children surf and swim; his son goes out with spear and net and brings home fish and octopus and squid for dinner.

Bustamante and his wife, Roxy, and eight of their 12 children have lived in a tent on this breathtaking stretch of beach on Oahu since last winter. The home they had been renting was sold with less than two weeks' notice, and they could not afford the deposit and down payment needed to get a new house. So they came to Nanakuli Beach, a haven for Hawaii's burgeoning population of homeless, with plans to stay just a few weeks, until they got back on their feet.

That was more than eight months ago.

"I didn't choose this place," said Bustamante, 48. "Given my circumstances, this place kind of chose me."

Up and down the beach, for the better part of 16 miles, the makeshift tent cities illustrate a growing problem. About 800 people live on this small section of Oahu's western shoreline alone.

Over there is another family with several children.

Over here is a University of Hawaii student.

Over there are a woman and her fiance, homeless for several years, planning their marriage on the beach where they live.

Tourists rarely see these beaches - many visitors are warned by helpful hotel staff in the posh resorts to stay away from such places because they are unsafe. But the problem of homelessness in Hawaii has become quietly endemic over the past several years.

On the economically struggling side of Oahu where Bustamante and his family live, about one in 50 residents are said to live on beaches, according to Waianae Community Outreach, a Hawaii homeless advocacy group that recently conducted a beach census.

If a visitor did not know he was in the United States, these Hawaiian beaches would seem like the Third World, with raw sewage running in parking lots, rotting piles of food and other trash, dozens of stray puppies and cats and the occasional pot-bellied pig.

On Oahu, Hawaii's most populated island, there could be well in excess of 5,500 people living on beaches, according to local groups that serve the homeless. And statewide, the number of homeless might be as high as 10,000, according to some calculations.

State officials use the stretch of beaches where the Bustamante family lives to measure how dire things are getting: In that area alone, the number of homeless has nearly tripled since 2002.

"The problem is certainly growing," said Kaulana Park, who was appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle in July to launch an effort to end homelessness in the state.

The problem is complicated with few quick-fix solutions.

The mild weather makes living on a beach a feasible long-term, year-round option for many. Drugs - particularly the state's continuing problem with methamphetamine, or "ice" - have been linked to the skyrocketing homeless population. The state's education system- routinely ranked among the most troubled in the nation - often doesn't prepare youths for college and the kind of employment that can earn them a living wage.

And the cost of living in paradise seems to soar each year: Gasoline, which sat at about $3.60 for months on end last year, is routinely among the most expensive in the U.S. Groceries command exorbitant prices - milk prices are the highest in the nation, with a gallon going for between $5 and $6 - because everything has to be shipped in from the mainland. The median cost of a single-family home exceeds $650,000 and petty theft has made car insurance unaffordable for many.

In Hawaii, where decades ago numerous people camped for months while getting their lives in order, the problem of the homeless living on beaches and in parks has grown so out of control that sentiment has turned from sympathy to outrage.

Police say violence on many of the beaches occupied by the homeless has monopolized officers' time. Drugs are rampant, and local children routinely find hypodermic needles washed up along with seashells.

The public largely supported a push by the city of Honolulu last spring to force tent dwellers from city parks near the tourist mecca of Waikiki, saying that the homeless population had literally taken over land that should be enjoyed by all and left many beaches and parks unsafe for visitors.

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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