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Hawaii Tent Cities Come With Million-Dollar Views

The state's homeless population has skyrocketed as costs soar. Mild weather makes living on a beach a solution for many.

September 24, 2006|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, his wife, Roxy, and eight of the couple's 12 children have lived in a massive tent on this breathtaking stretch of beach on Oahu since last winter. Their living arrangements were born of necessity; the home the Bustamantes had been renting was sold with less than two weeks' notice. 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, planning 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, makeshift tent cities illustrate that the Bustamante family represents a growing problem. About 800 people live on this small section of Oahu's western shoreline.

Other occupants include another family with several children, a University of Hawaii student and a woman and her fiance, homeless for the last several years who are planning to marry 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 endemic.

On the economically struggling side of Oahu where Bustamante and his family live, about 1 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. At these sites, raw sewage runs through the parking lots; food and other trash rot in piles; and dozens of stray puppies and cats and the occasional pot-bellied pig roam at will.

On Oahu, Hawaii's most populated island, there may be well in excess of 5,500 people living on beaches, according to local groups who serve the homeless. Statewide, the number of homeless may be as high as 10,000, according to some calculations. State officials have used the stretch of beaches where the Bustamante family lives as a bellwether of how dire things are: 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. Drugs -- particularly the state's continuing problem with methamphetamine or "ice" -- have been linked to the skyrocketing homeless population. The state's education system -- ranked among the most troubled in the nation -- often doesn't prepare youths for college and the kind of work that pays a living wage. And the cost of living in paradise seems to soar each year:

Gasoline, about $3.60 for months 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 from the mainland. The median cost of a single-family home exceeds $650,000, and theft has made car insurance unaffordable for many.

Take Bustamante. His wife works in a pizza delivery call center, making about $2,000 a month. Rent for a home large enough to fit their family would consume that entire paycheck. Bustamante says he can't work because he can't afford a car to get to a job and someone must stay at the tent at all times to guard the family's possessions.

Bustamante gets teary when he talks about what life on the beach means: bathing in outdoor public showers intended simply to get sand off beachgoers' feet; having to ask churches and family members for money to buy ice to keep food cold; standing in line with the rest of the homeless each week to apply for a free camping permit, which allows him to keep his tent up. He gets most upset when he talks of sending his children to school each morning.

"The other kids tease them," he said. "They know they live on the beach because they show up to school with sand still on their feet."

In Hawaii, 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.

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