Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Homeless crisis washes up in paradise of Obama's birthplace

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 $600-a-night hotel rooms which dot Hawaii's most populated island. Instead, it's a battered Toyota van. Inside, in an area that measures six by eight feet, she must eat, sleep, and store all of her worldly goods.

"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 says, patting one of her three chihuahua dogs. "I wouldn't say that it's much of a life. I guess, like the old saying goes, I'd call it more of an existence."

Paracuelles is one of the more than 4,000 homeless people, from a population of around 950,000, who contribute to Oahu's unwanted status as one of the street-sleeping capitals of America.

Despite its 'aloha' reputation, Hawaii currently has the third-highest rate of homelessness of any state in the nation, behind Oregon and Nevada. Since the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose above 15pc last week, the problem here, like elsewhere, seems likely to get worse before it gets better.

In addition to the likes of Paracuelles, a recent study by the research firm SMS found that 96,648 Hawaiians are now members of the 'hidden homeless' community, a demographic which contains people squatting, living in temporary accommodation or staying with friends or family members.

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. In many ways, their sheer ubiquity makes the city of Barack Obama's birth resemble a Third World metropolis.

Venture into the countryside of Oahu, and you'll catch glimpses of tarpaulin, often in deep undergrowth a short distance from the road. Each one is a casual dwelling. There are several hundred of them, on a relatively small island which measures roughly 20 miles by 30 across.

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 highly controversial plan to offer homeless people from other parts of the US 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 that 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 the problem from the prying eyes of the international media due to attend.

Earlier this month, local sheriffs arrived at the beachside park in the town of Hale'iwa where Paracuelles's car is stationed and served an eviction notice. She and 40 other residents were told that if they are not gone by October 4, they'll be forcibly removed.

Doran Porter of Hawaii's Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance blames Hawaii's spiralling homelessness problem on a straightforward 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 says.

"The average cost of a basic one-bedroom apartment is between $850 and $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, $7.25 an hour. Even with a job they can't afford a home."(© Independent News Service)

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