The dark side of paradise

By | Category: Travel destinations

Hawaii has a huge homeless problem, defying the islands’ image of paradise

Britain may be experiencing a near record cold May but 7,107 miles away, here in Hawaii, the scenario couldn’t be more different.

Every day it’s a balmy 80+ degrees…. “Beautiful day” we malihinis (newcomers to the island, who want to stay) say to ourselves while sipping Mai Tais – the classic Hawaiian cocktail – by the water’s edge.

But behind the idyllic sea-front, life isn’t quite the proverbial beach for locals. For while Hawaii has been ranked the second healthiest state in America with violent crime typically about half what it is on the mainland, Hawaii has an underclass which lives in poverty.

There are now more than 7,000 homeless in Hawaii – the highest per capita rate in the USA – despite the fact that unemployment here is lower than the national average.

All of which poses the question: if the majority of Hawaii’s homeless population have jobs, why then are they sleeping rough?

Hawaiian nights

The contrast between the tourists sipping Mai Tais and the life of the locals couldn’t be more distinct

The answer can be attributed to the high cost of living. Make no mistake, this tropical paradise is eye watering-ly expensive – and this is coming from someone who had a spell living and working in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean destination that’s never been considered a bargain.

The steep grocery prices (Hawaii has the second highest cost of living among US cities and even a simple a carton of milk will set you back eight bucks)  can be attributed to the fact that – much like Cayman – about 85 per cent of all food consumed here, has been imported.

Elsewhere the lack of affordable accommodation is down to wealthy tourists and mainlanders snapping up property in paradise, pushing up costs for locals and throwing the poor to the edge of the islands – resulting in lengthy, energy sapping commutes to work (which by and large is focused in the resort areas). If they’re lucky…


An ever increasing per cent  of Hawaii’s work force are finding themselves with no option other than to set up makeshift tent communities at the state’s beach parks and other public spots. Not that it’s easy to do so right now for, in December 2014, Kirk Caldwell (Honolulu’s incumbent mayor) signed a bill banning people from lying on public pavements between 5am and 11pm. Anyone who risks  doing so can be jailed for up to 30 days and fined up to US$1,000 if caught…

As for those who are able to own or rent a home? Chances are they are holding down at least three jobs – just like Dennis Bacani. “Everyone in Hawaii has more than one job,” shrugs Dennis who works in a labatory by day and as a shuttle driver by night. And on Tuesdays – Dennis’ one day off? He works as a tour guide showing tourists around his island, Oahu.

And yet despite Dennis’ punishing work schedule both he and the homeless people I have spoken to, still say in island pidgin (which was developed on sugar plantations as a common tongue for immigrants at work): “Lucky you live Hawaii.”

Perhaps they have a point. Paradise may have its problems but when temperatures rarely dip below 75 degrees – even in the height of winter – everything, sleeping rough not withstanding, is a hell of lot easier to deal with….

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