This Paradise Is Awash in Homelessness - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This Paradise Is Awash in Homelessness

This Paradise Is Awash in Homelessness

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because this is a side of American immigration you’ve never heard of.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Upon arrival, Josie Howard felt cold and out of place. The promised paradise of Honolulu was a tundra compared to her native Onoun Island in Micronesia, and her new life in America was filled with more unpleasantness than she expected: office drudgery instead of beachside fishing, the clamor of traffic instead of the ocean’s peaceful purr and her fellow compatriots — in makeshift tents, where they wore tattered clothes and were 2,500 miles away from their own onetime homes. “Before I came to Hawaii, I never knew what homelessness was,” says Howard, who moved there in 1989.

In recent years, the Aloha State has seen a rapid rise in the number of people living in shelters and crowded tent camps. Indeed, 

Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country.

That’s according to an annual report from Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, which also reveals a 27 percent increase in chronic homelessness in 2016. Far from the picture of paradise, Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in America. The surge is due, in part, to a wave of some 15,000 Pacific Islanders from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, who have moved to Hawaii over the past 27 years. Following the 1989 Compact of Free Association treaty, which give Micronesians the right to live and work freely in the U.S., a record number of immigrants have flocked to the shores of Waikiki and elsewhere in search of housing, health care, education and, most importantly, a better life than the one back on the atolls of the Pacific. All told, about 20 percent of Hawaii’s homeless are recent arrivals from Micronesia. 

Hawaii is a welcoming culture, but this isn’t the aloha spirit.

Bill Hoshijo of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission

Once safely on this side of the U.S. border, many Micronesians tend to face language barriers, an onslaught of discrimination and the prospect of homelessness, says Bill Hoshijo of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. “Hawaii is a welcoming culture, but this isn’t the aloha spirit,” he says. Neil Mellen, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Micronesian state of Yap, faults the U.S. Department of Interior for creating a welfare state and, like a physician, “ignoring the underlying illness” that cause Micronesians to flee in the first place. He points to the lack of postsecondary institutions, quality hospitals and basic electricity in Micronesia that push people to brave the waters and head eastward to Hawaii.

For its part, cash-strapped Hawaii is trying to help. The state spent $163 million last year to support social services, education and health care for Micronesians — but not enough to address the entire issue. And now, that pot of federal money is quickly drying up. In some ways, it sounds a bit like another story that’s been brewing in America’s long southern border with Mexico. And just like on the mainland, Hawaii’s homelessness and immigration woes show no signs of waning. 

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