America's homeless crisis washes up in Obama's birthplace

Some live in tents, others in cars – but Hawaii would rather their extreme poor lived on the mainland. Guy Adams reports from Honolulu on a crackdown the US doesn't want the world to see

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 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. Disabled by chronic back problems, and unable to find employment, she must instead get by with $314 a month in food stamps, plus petty cash earned selling necklaces that she makes from seashells.

Despite its "aloha" reputation, Hawaii currently has the third-highest ratio of homelessness of any state in the nation, behind Oregon and Nevada. Since the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose above 15 per cent 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. Another 262,000 people – a staggering 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. 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 their problem from the prying eyes of the international media due to attend.

Governor Abercrombie has repeatedly denied the existence of such "sweeps", saying that it is not a crime to be homeless in Hawaii. Last week, the Honolulu Star reported that state officials had also testified before the legislature that none was being organised.

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

"I've no idea where I'll go," she says. "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. Our vehicles aren't exactly road-legal. But if the cops want to give one of us a ticket when we drive off, they have to give us all one. And they usually can't be bothered with all that paperwork."

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 earlier this month, at a large encampment underneath the Nimitz Highway in Honolulu.

Porter 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."

As a result, many small rental apartments contain several families, who sleep in shifts. Other residents work two jobs to get by. And those at the bottom end of the employment ladder aren't the only ones faced with a daily struggle.

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

All of which has led to a curious phenomenon: white-collar homelessness. A recent episode of the television series Hawaii Five-O focused on middle-class office workers who choose to live in illegal beachside encampments. Powered by electricity generators, their tents contained flatscreen televisions and working kitchens.

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.

"Right now, for every one person we manage to get off the street, I'd say there are two ending up there because of the recession," says Glenn Fuentes, an outreach worker. "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."

As if things couldn't deteriorate further, last week brought news that a $6m annual grant that helps homeless people to find rented accommodation would be axed. Introduced as part of the 2008 federal stimulus, it has so far helped almost 1,800 people. Without the cash, Fuentes's job of getting clients off the streets will become even harder.

Among those whom money could have helped is Clifford Mendoza, 53, who has been homeless for more than 20 years. A former landscape gardener who supplements food stamps with whatever cash he can make spear-fishing, Mendoza says he has no prospect of ever being able to afford a roof over his head.

"There's so much land here, so much space on this island, but they only seem to build huge hotels and mansions for rich people. Don't get me wrong – we do live on a beautiful island. But people don't see what's going on a few yards away from these amazing beaches. And I'm starting to believe that a lot of them just don't care."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?