Sun, surf and sand but sleeping on the street

Beverly Paracuelles wakes up each morning to a view of palm trees, golden sands and azure tropical seas. She spends her days wandering along the world-famous beaches of Oahu's northern shore. But don't go telling her that life must be a dream.

Home for the 54-year-old former nursing assistant is neither one of the ocean-view mansions, nor the US$600-a-night ($730) hotel rooms which dot Hawaii's most populated island. Instead, it's a battered Toyota van.

"I've lived here for three years now, since I lost my job, and the depressing thing is that I can't see how things are going to get much better," she said, patting one of her three chihuahua dogs.

Paracuelles is one of the more than 4000 homeless people, from a population of about 950,000, who contribute to Oahu's unwanted status as one of the street-sleeping capitals of America. Disabled by chronic back problems, and unable to find employment, she must instead get by with US$314 a month in food stamps, plus petty cash earned selling necklaces that she makes from shells.

Hawaii currently has the third-highest ratio of homelessness of any state in the nation, behind Oregon and Nevada. As well, a recent study by research firm SMS found that 96,648 Hawaiians are now members of the "hidden homeless" community made up of people squatting, living in temporary accommodation, or staying with friends or family.

Another 262,000 people - one in five residents of the seven islands - are classed as being "at risk" of homelessness.

You don't have to go far from the high-rise glamour of Waikiki Beach, Hawaii's most famous tourist centre, to appreciate the human effects of this statistical burden.

Beggars throng the traffic lights of central Honolulu. They while away days in parks and sleep in wasteland tent cities. Venture into the countryside of Oahu and you'll catch glimpses of tarpaulin, often in deep undergrowth a short distance from the road. There are several hundred of these casual dwellings, on a relatively small island which measures roughly 30km by 50km.

The problem has not escaped Hawaii's ruling class, who are acutely aware of its potential to damage the "tropical paradise" reputation on which the state's lucrative tourist industry relies. Last year, local politicians narrowly failed to back a controversial plan to offer homeless people from other parts of the United States a free one-way air ticket home.

Debate over alternative solutions is now gaining increased urgency in the run-up to November's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit, which will draw 21 heads of state and hundreds of business leaders to Honolulu. In April, Hawaii's Governor, Neil Abercrombie, unveiled a "90-day plan" to reduce homelessness before the big event. But the 90 days brought little in the way of visible change.

Homeless advocates are now concerned officials are planning to conduct intense "sweeps" of Hawaii's homeless encampments in the run-up to the Apec summit, clearing them from the streets in order to hide the scale of their problem from the prying eyes of the international media.

Abercrombie has repeatedly denied the existence of such "sweeps" saying it is not a crime to be homeless in Hawaii.

But try telling that to Paracuelles. This month, sheriffs arrived at the beachside park in Hale'iwa where her car is stationed and served an eviction notice. She and 40 other residents were told that if they were not gone by October 4, they would be forcibly removed.

"I've no idea where I'll go," she said. "Probably the next place with space. We've decided, as a group, to stay close to the beaches and stay together. There's power in numbers and safety."

Hawaii's Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, a charity that works with the homeless community on Oahu, confirmed Paracuelles's story. Its executive director, Doran Porter, added that despite official assurances to the contrary, a "sweep" also took place this month at a large encampment underneath the Nimitz Highway in Honolulu.

Porter blames Hawaii's spiralling homelessness problem on an imbalance of supply and demand. There are far too many people who want to live on the islands, and too few housing units to hold them, especially when many buildings are also used as holiday homes. As a result, rented accommodation is some of the most costly in the nation.

"We have the highest cost of living in the US. Everything is more, from milk in the supermarket to gas to fill your car. And that's particularly the case with rent," he said. "The average cost of a basic one-bedroom apartment is between US$850 and US$900 a month. That's about the same as San Francisco. A lot of people in Hawaii, particularly in the tourist industry, are on minimum wage, US$7.25 an hour. Even with a job they can't afford a home."

And those at the bottom end of the employment ladder aren't the only ones struggling.

"Because this is seen as an attractive place to live, wages in professional jobs are often lower here, too," Porter said. "I've seen graduate legal positions, which on the mainland would pay US$60,000 or US$70,000, advertised at nearer to US$40,000. Even with that income, it can be difficult to make your rent."

All of which has led to a curious phenomenon: white-collar homelessness.

Aside from economics, experts blame Hawaii's climate and famously welcoming image for turning it into a magnet for people at risk of homelessness. Some travel despite already having no income or accommodation. Others come for work and then lose their jobs. Once you are stuck on the islands with no cash, it's almost impossible to leave.

Glenn Fuentes, an outreach worker, said: "If you are going to be homeless, where would you rather live? New York State, or Hawaii? We've even had phone calls from people in states such as Florida saying, 'We are homeless and are coming to live in Hawaii; could you direct us to a shelter?' We tell them that it ain't any better here. But they don't seem to listen."


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