OAHU HOMELESS CRISIS – A Modest Proposal

Tents line both sides of Olomehani Street in Kakaako near the Ohe Street intersection. 30dec2014 photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So much effort and financial resources have been spent on mitigating this housing issue here in Honolulu.

 I wanted to share my private story as a young girl in Singapore, relating to housing.

 Long story very short, my mother’s father warned her not to spend time with the popular and handsome guy in the Holland Road neighborhood. My maternal grandfather was an affluent business trader. My paternal grandfather was also an affluent businessman and community headman. But my young mother ended up eloping with my father; later to find out he already had a wife and children. He would later add a third wife.

My maternal grandfather disowned her; my mother was too proud to seek reconciliation or for help with her children. The father and daughter would reconcile decades later.

 I was the seventh child but I don’t remember my father in my early childhood days. He must have visited us at least ten times; I have seven brothers and two sisters!

Mother became a washerwoman – a human traveling washing machine. She was intelligent and spirited but did not attend school because her very traditional father thought it was a “waste of rice” to send daughters to be educated. (In fact, Grandfather was so traditional that when he died, he left all his assets to his first born son only.)  I always thought that, if my mother were formally educated, she would have been a great partner with the former Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Prime Minister of Singapore. They were so much alike.  She was very intelligent, spoke many languages, a natural leader, but unlucky with her love life.

I remember living in a rural attap house in my early years.  It was supposedly haunted. No one dared to live there so my father moved our family into that house.

attap-house(This is a similar style attap house but minus the vehicle. We had no cars.)

We had the best childhood. We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor. My stomping grounds were up in the big tropical trees and exploring the rural surroundings. We walked miles to the public school. Kind neighbors gave us their daily newspapers after they were done.  My mother raised pigs, tilapia, chicken, and vegetables. We used a community water well and had an outhouse.

On the other side of our rural neighborhood were huge beautiful concrete homes with indoor plumbing, huge bathtubs, ceramic tiles, and beautiful landscaped yards. These homes were usually occupied by foreign executives or foreign journalists based in Singapore.

When fire burnt our attap house down, we had to relocate.

We moved into this Lengkok Bahru flat below.. The unit was very small – a living room, one bedroom, a small cooking area and one bathroom. It was probably about 700 square feet. It was a corner unit on the fifth floor. The eleven of us moved into that cement block. It was a big adjustment for us.

lengkok-bahru-b-61(This building has always been well maintained. The elevator shaft is a new addition. This is at least 45 years old.)

My assigned sleeping space was on the back open “patio” where my sisters and I slept on the concrete floor. I remember growing out of it when my feet and my head eventually touched the ends of that patio space.

The rent was very cheap; I believe it was 25% or less than what my mother earned as a washerwoman.

The Singapore government provided inexpensive units like these to provide public housing. Singapore was transforming from a third world country then.

Although it was congested; we made do. My mother focused on our education. Although my father was an alcoholic and chain-smoker, none of us emulated him. She took charge of her children’s welfare.

None of us dared to misbehave or become delinquent because she was strict, supervised us, and expected much of us. While other neighbors sent their children to work at hawker stalls or other minimal wage jobs; she sent us to schools. We participated fully in the public school extra-curricular activities. We were avid readers. One of my favorite memories was receiving free reading materials from the American Embassy in Singapore. The printed materials ranged from biographies of American Presidents to Will Rogers to Chief Sitting Bull.

My brothers and sisters all became educated. My first and second brother did not pursue university education so they could support their younger siblings. They became a public school teacher and policeman respectively. The rest went to college and obtained professions like Human Resource Executive with a top American firm; a top executive of the biggest firm in Singapore; a Navy Captain; television business news editor and so forth.

I spent a chunk of my childhood years at the public housing (about ten years) till I left Singapore at the age of seventeen to attend college in Hawaii.

Why am I sharing this personal story?

Life would have been so much more difficult for our family if we did not have an affordable and safe roof over our heads.

We never had to worry about having a roof over our heads. We never had to worry whether the police or county workers will seize our tents or personal papers at 2:00 in the morning.  Although it was congested living; our housing was safe and sanitary. That little unit allowed us to feel secure and focus on other pursuits that bettered our lives and allowed us to contribute to society.

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There is obviously no one silver bullet to solve homelessness in a mostly “cash” economy.

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Homelessness is a complicated and multi-faceted issue. Other various solutions, such as counseling, educational and social support are also needed to address this.

But, we urgently need honest and efficient leadership at City Hall. Incumbent Mayor Kirk Caldwell is failing. There is too much politics and “pay to play” involved.

There is, no doubt, a continuing need for the services of the many non-profit groups that offer counseling and related services. Funds that are ear-marked for addressing such issues must be spent as such and not mismanaged or plundered.

Ultimately, the primary and long-term solution to homelessness boils down to a roof over the head, whether it is in a mental support institution or an ordinary lodging.

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One way is to build simple, safe and permanent living quarters and to efficiently manage and maintain them in perpetuity for those in need. Certainly it should never evolve into a generational dependence but these housing resources must be available in a humane society like ours.

So-called partnering with private developers to provide a certain percentage of “affordable units” for 30 or 60 years is inadequate and short-sighted. It’s bad public policy planning.

What will happen in 60 years?

 The costs of living in Oahu will surely rise and the housing problem will only get worse.

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There are supposedly many real estate holdings owned by the State and City along the proposed 21-square mile Honolulu Rail Transit Corridor.

Why not solidify and consolidate the resources and build affordable rental units now? We have seen high rise buildings appear like mushrooms in Honolulu. Why not focus on affordable rentals now?

 Providing  and maintaining affordable rentals in perpetuity will help solve a big part of our homeless problem in Oahu.

Note: Some photos are taken from Public Domain. Mahalo.

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