Trail of Tears: Homeless Advocates Struggle to Help Hawaii’s Homeless Families on Oahu’s West Side

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BY MIRIAM LANDRU – Despite the current condition and hardened reputation of much of Oahu’s Leeward coast, Waianae has an illustrious history because it was home to Hawaiian nobility and chieftains hundreds of years ago and it still remains stunningly beautiful.

But the community has its challenges, including a large homeless population, which includes many native Hawaiians who either cannot accept a more formal way of life or cannot survive financially because of Hawaii’s cost of living, which is among the highest in the nation.


Sophina Placencina, director of Waianae Community Outreach, knows many of the families in Waianae. Twenty years ago, her mother founded the organization, and now two decades later, her daughter continues the tradition of working with the area homeless.

Hundreds of native Hawaiians have lived on the beach because it is their life:  “I think homelessness has been around ever since settlement here in Hawaii. You know back in the 1770s when Captain Cook came and discovered the islands. I believe there was a subgroup in that particular society that was homeless in a sense. They were shunned from their families and the like. When we get more and more of the mainstream society mentality that you need to be living in a home, that you need to be living in a certain way… it kind of developed that subgroup.”

The beaches on the Waianae coast are among the most beautiful on the island of Oahu. Some are secluded and far away from the hustle and bustle of Oahu’s tourist industry. Many homeless that live on those beaches, who happen to be Native Hawaiian, agree with Placencina.

“I will never leave the beach. It is my home. I feel nothing without the ocean,” said a homeless Leeward coast woman who declined to give her name.

Placencina said “We say here in Hawaii that as long as they are Native Hawaiian, they’re not homeless, just houseless.”

However, many homeless people in Hawaii aren’t enthusiastic about being homeless and hope they can find a place to live. They want help, which is why programs such as U.S. Vets and Waianae Community Outreach exist.

Darryl Vincent, State Director of the U.S. Vets program and council member on the newly formed Hawaii State Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“We’ve been around Waianae for 4 years now and have served over 2,000 families. Just about half of those are children. Half of that… under the age of 5.”

Homeless advocates say something that plagues the Leeward Coast is generational poverty, which essentially means that a particular family has experienced poverty or homelessness generation after generation. And in Waianae, most of the homeless families have children.

Placencina’s organization travels beaches, such as Ke’eau and Makua, inhabited by Waianae’s homeless, making sure the children are attending school and getting the proper care and attention they need.

There reportedly are almost 500 homeless residents in Waianae and the majority do use the services provided by U.S. Vets and Waianae Community Outreach on a $1 million dollar annual budget.

“We provide the homeless on the beaches linkage to mainstream services like applying for benefits, medical, food stamps, and transportation to medical facilities. Food, clothing, we provide it all. We also allow the people in our system to use our mailbox,” said Placencina.

Still, the last head count may not be accurate. “I’m pretty sure there’s more, but a lot of the families have moved into the bushes… the mountains,” Placencina said.

Placencina has strong opinions on Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 90-day plan to sweep homeless from Honolulu’s streets into shelters and housing. Headed by former Catholic Priest Marc Alexander, the plan is approaching its mid-August finale.

Marc Alexander, the Governor's Coordinator on Homelessness

While she is optimistic, she has doubts about its success, particularly since it focuses on Waikiki and Honolulu’s urban core rather than the entire island or state.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the 90-day plan focusing on the urban core. I know it does have steps that include the island and the entire state, but not the main objective. Still, I am optimistic.”

During the past year in Waianae, there have been a few beach closures and clean-ups. Now, most of the homeless are calling Ke’eau Beach Park and Makua Beach home. If those beaches are swept, homeless advocates wonder where the local homeless families would go if they don’t seek shelter at the U.S. Vet facilities in Waianae and Barber’s Point.

“I think if you really wanted to see a plan that really worked, the government would take care of the entire island. That’s what we see when beach closures happen. They just move to another beach. I would liken it to the trail of tears.”






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