Is the Kaka'ako Homeless Community Mostly COFA Citizens?


It started with an article, "Kakaako homeless encampment nearly doubles in size", that complimented a video, "Kakaako homeless encampment nearly doubles in size" (video), which continued a controversy, "No Aloha for Micronesians in Hawaii". This eventually led to the continued discrimination of Micronesians/COFA citizens living in Hawaii:

The current outrage towards COFA citizens stem from a statement made by HNN, in the first article above: "... the majority of the homeless population are migrants from the three island states that fall under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) treaty with the U.S.". The author was referring to the homeless community now living near Kaka'ako park near downtown Honolulu.

Though some supported the statement, others found it outrageous and accused HNN of, "bad journalism". Readers accused HNN of fabricating their news reports to gain more viewers/readers."Where is the evidence?" some asked:

A week later, HNN published a follow-up article: "State officials: Majority of Kaka'ako homeless are COFA migrants". The article seems to be a direct response to readership accusations of "bad journalism". HNN provided a number of sources, named departments, and explained the methodology that determined the statement, "Majority of Kaka'ako homeless are COFA migrants". Their sources gave reports that solidified their claim that most of the hundreds of homeless in Kaka'ako are COFA citizens. According to HNN, state officials say that, "more than two-thirds [of the homeless] who live there are from COFA nations".

The article seems conclusive. But members of TFB wanted to see for themselves. So we conducted our own research.


I first contacted Kimo Carvalho, the Director of Community Relations for the Institute for Human Services. The institute has helped shelter a large number of the homeless population in Oahu. The IHS was also mentioned as a source in the HNN article. When asked about COFA homeless populations in Kaka'ako he referred to the statement made in the HNN article, that 2/3 of the homeless in Kaka'ako are COFA migrants. He stated that it was a Department of Health (DOH) worker who made that statement. That Statement was backed-up by surveys conducted by the DOH. Carvalho said: "We do work closely with the Department of Health (as well as 80+ other partners) and we do support their information, data and findings." he also added that, "their statement mentioning 2/3 are COFA migrants are based on [data], not speculation". His accounts are second-hand, or they were based on findings by other officials.

I then got in touch with Charlene Ono, A supervisor at the Department of Health's (DOH), Public Health Nursing (PHN). PHN is a branch of the Department of Health that seeks "health equity for all people in all communities" . She explained that PHN workers have been in the Kaka'ako region counting the number of tents over periods of time. One of their nurses was interviewed by HNN and she gave the statement that two-thirds of the Kaka'ako homeless are COFA citizens. But, that was not based on facts, it was assumption. Although DOH officials count the number of homeless and the number of tents in the area, they do not collect demographics, or statistics based on race and ethnicity. The PHN worker "believed" that most of the homeless in Kaka'ako were COFA citizens from sight alone. Furthermore, Ono clarified that the number of people in Kaka'ako varies and changes throughout the day. Many of the homeless who reside there are not present during the day, probably because they are at work, school, or elsewhere. So, at the time that HNN asked the PHN worker, it simply looked like there were many COFA citizens present at that specific time of the day.

But could there be another department that checked the citizenship of the homeless in Kaka'ako? I contacted Kayla Rosenfeld, to try and help us with that question. Kayla Rosenfeld is the Department of Human Services' (DHS), Public Information Officer and Communications Specialist. DHS helps by providing,  "...programs, services and benefits for the purpose of achieving the outcome of empowering Hawaii’s most vulnerable people...". She explained that the DHS Homeless Programs Office (HPO) keeps such data regarding citizenship of the homeless population. However, that data is collected from people who seek homeless services such as shelters and outreach programs. They do not go out and collect data from the homeless communities. Rosenfeld also explained that data is broken down by counties, not neighborhoods. So there is no data on the Kaka'ako area. She also said that, "[c]onclusions about specific neighborhood demographics should be attributed to the reporter". Meaning that DHS does not have data to support the assumption that two-thirds of the homeless in Kaka'ako are COFA citizens. And that the HNN reporter should be responsible for that statement.


So why would anyone publish an article that supports an assumption, and state it as a fact? An article that paints a negative picture of COFA citizens living in Hawaii?

Because Micronesians have been used for political scapegoating and for media sensationalism. What better target for elected officials and journalists than a minority group that has no voting power, a group that has a little voice in the community, and little money. A TFB poll asked readers, "Are COFA Migrants Negatively Portrayed by Hawaii News Mediums?" 94 percent of respondents agreed: "Yes, COFA migrants are negatively portrayed". 

To buttress my point, if you read and watch the HNN reports on the Kaka'ako homeless, there is not one quote from any of the homeless. They did not approach any homeless COFA citizen and give them a chance to respond to their claim that two-thirds of the community are COFA citizens. In their video, they simply drive through the area as they gave a report from their moving car. Not once stopping or exiting their vehicle.

So, quite naturally, I went to Kaka'ako to see for myself. I went on foot, with a camera, and some questions.

After walking around the area I must admit that I was shocked to see a large gathering of homeless in one setting. However, it became abundantly clear that there was no way that anyone could guess precisely as to who and how many people actually lived in this community. After going through the area I immediately felt intrusive. I was not thinking that I was intruding into peoples homes, but that I was meddling into peoples lives. I must note that I encountered only a handful of people that I know for sure are Micronesians. I say Micronesians and not COFA citizens because they could very well be American citizens of Micronesian heritage. The only way to actually know if they're COFA citizens is to check their passports/IDs. Something that no department that I know of has done. I returned to the park several more times and refrained from taking pictures. As I explained, taking photos felt too intrusive. The number of people present varied depending on the time of day. Closer to the evening the area was filled with people. During the noon time it was relatively empty. On all occasions I could not guess that two-thirds of this community are COFA citizens, or any citizenship for that matter. But, that is just my guess.

Although I took no pictures or videos I was able to talk to two COFA citizens who told me they were homeless. I will withhold their names and paraphrase our conversations.


OA = Myself
P1 = Person One
P2 = Person Two

OA = "Do you think it's right for people to take photos and videos of homeless people?"
P1 = "No. We're homeless, why would we want our photos taken. It's already difficult being homeless."

OA = "People are saying that most of the homeless in Kaka'ako are Micronesians. What do you think?"
P2 = "I don't know. But there are alot of Micronesians who are homeless. I know some who live there. But many, like me, are in the shelter now."

OA = "Are most of the people in the shelter Micronesians?"
P2 = "I don't know, but there are many of us. There are people from everywhere."

OA = "How did you become homeless?"
P1 = "This is temporary. I'm just trying to save money and get a better job."
P2 = "It's hard living out here. I'm trying to help my family back home."

OA = "Are you working?"
P1 = "Yes, I have two jobs. I'm saving money. I want to have a place for my family."
P2 = "Yes, I send a lot of my money to my family back home. Also, when I have time I bring food and supplies to the homeless people living in the streets because I know what it's like."

OA = "Some people say that if you're homeless then you should just go back home. What do you think?"
P2 = "It's not that easy to just move. And I left home for a reason, to find opportunities."

OA = "People say that Micronesians come here with the intention to become homeless."
P2 = "There are people like that. But they do that so they can get on a list for low income housing. That's because they are looking for opportunities that we don't have back home. Our island is very poor. We are all looking for our own opportunities."

OA = "What can people do to help the homeless?"
P1 = "Just remember that we are people. Treat us like people."
P2 = "Volunteer to help the homeless. They need help. "


Those conversations, along with my trips to Kaka'ako made me realize many things. One of the biggest realizations was that the real story is not "COFA homeless", or "COFA homeless in Kaka'ako". The real story is, "Homelessness in Hawaii".


Hawaii has a big problem with homelessness. Not Micronesian homelessness, which makes up 7 percent of homeless program participants.

It seems like we're wasting valuable time concentrating on a small percentage of the homeless population and not too much time focusing on the bigger problem: Hawaii's cost of living is too high. At the moment Hawaii is considered the most expensive place to live in, in the United States. Statistics show that you will need to make $31.61 an hour in order to afford a 2 bedroom apartment. That is the highest in the United States. Hawaii's minimum wage is $7.75. You would need to work almost every hour in the week to afford a modest rent. 

At $7.75, Hawaii has one of the lower wages in the country. It was $7.25 in 2007, the lowest minimum wage possible in the USA under federal law. However the wage is expected to rise to $10.10 by 2018. But the effects of a high cost of living and low income has already taken its toll. In 2014, Hawaii had the highest homeless rate in the United States, with 465 homeless per 100,000.

To be fair, If you compare Hawaii to Mississippi, which has the lowest homeless rate in the USA, you will see that Mississippi's minimum wage is still at $7.25 an hour. However, (Mississippi's cost of living is one of the lowest in the US). We'll have to wait until 2018 to see if the rise in the minimum wage will solve most of the homeless problem in Hawaii.

In the meantime, what have Hawaii lawmakers done to remedy the homeless issue?

They've created a law that would make sitting or lying on sidewalks illegal, known as the sit-lie ordinance. Honolulu mayor, Kirk Caldwell has, "declared a war on homelessness". Along with the sit-lie law, authorities can seize the belongings of homeless people. The State is also forcing homeless people out of parks during the night and banning tents. Violators can be fined up to $1,000 and spend 30 days in jail. In essence, Hawaii has made it illegal to be homeless.

To the State, the homeless have become things that need to be moved - quite literally. In 2013, Hawaii passed a bill to grant one-way tickets for homeless residents to return to their States of origin. Those who opposed the idea explained that it could serve as an incentive for people to travel to Hawaii and expect a free ticket home.  

These out-of-sight solutions do nothing but create a division between the residents of Hawaii. Just saying that you've "declared war on homelessness" is dangerous. Just take a look at Hawaii representative Tom Brower, who empties homeless people's shopping carts and destroys the carts with a sledgehammer. He calls it his personal form of "justice". In his mind he's doing the State a favor when he administers his brand of civic-duty. He views the homeless as "disgusting", and tells them to "get your ass moving" when he finds them sleeping at bus stops. But where does he expect them to move to? Another bus-stop? Or maybe, a State park? That could be how representative Brower ended up at Kaka'ako park recently where he claims he was attacked by a group of homeless teenagers. Homeless teenagers that claim he was taking their pictures without their permission. One of the teens said that they just wanted "respect", he added that, "we don't choose to live like this, if I had a choice to go to a house right now and live in that house and I can pay for it, trust and believe I'll be in my house".

This incident brings me back to my conversation with "P1". Where that individual stated, "why would we want our photos taken? It's already difficult being homeless" also adding, "just remember that we are people, treat us like people".  A request that seems to have gone unrealized by some lawmakers. These same lawmakers have enacted and set in place laws that quite frankly, dehumanizes the homeless community.


So, are two-thirds of the homeless encampment in Kaka'ako COFA citizens? I don't know. And unless there's a department that has that information, then no one else knows. And that should be the end of that story.

Hawaii should take ownership of its homeless issue. The homeless issue in Hawaii is a Hawaii issue. It is not a COFA issue, or an issue of another US State.

Finally, the problem should be homelessness, and not homeless people. Until we revisit and redefine our approach to this problem we will continue to impose dehumanizing laws that may in turn foster damaging behaviors.