It was about 9:30 in the morning when I walked into the women’s public restroom at the police substation in Wailuku. Like every other weekday morning, I went straight into the stall. I wanted to be as quick as possible—the longer I was in there, the more probable it was that someone I knew would walk in.
After giving myself a hippy shower with an Evian bottle filled with tap water and then changing my clothes, I started to shave my legs. I rolled up my pants and shaved my calves and knees—just cold water and a razor. Shaving cream and soap were luxuries only people with homes could afford.
Now came the hard part—washing my hair in the sink. The sink was grimy. It was always grimy. Wiping it down with paper towels, I dunked my head in the sink. For soap I used a combination shampoo/conditioner/body wash one of my best friends back in Denver gave me as a going-away present. Without it I would have been really dirty and gross.
My head was full of soap and pretty much submerged under the tap when the woman came out of the bathroom stall. As she stood behind me awkwardly waiting for me to move away from the sink, I noticed her reflection and realized that I knew her. She was one of my regular customers at Cafe Marc Aurel.
My heart dropped into my shoes, and I tried to move as quickly as possible without looking too pathetic. Was she going to recognize me as the person who usually got her coffee at the cafe? Were the rest of the regulars going to find out that I was homeless? Was this going to hurt Marc’s business?
She didn’t recognize me. But later that day, when I was at work, she walked in. When she saw me, her eyes sparked with recognition and sadness. But she never said anything.
For about three weeks in the fall of 2005, my boyfriend Jesse, our friend Kenneth and I lived at the Kahului Breakwater. How we got there is something anyone who moves to Maui should think about.
First arriving at Kahului Airport from Denver, Jesse and I took a taxi to the Maui Seaside hotel, where our friend Kenneth and an acquaintance of his girlfriend were staying. They were kind enough to welcome us into the two-bed room and offered up their fridge full of beer.
Right off the bat, money got scarce. Kenneth’s acquaintance whittled away what money the two of them had by convincing him to remain at the Seaside long after it was financially sound. We’d all just quit our previous jobs, and none of us were employed yet.
Jesse and I felt like the children in the group; at the time awaiting our last paychecks, we weren’t consulted when any decision was made. We were like tagalongs just there for the ride, watching the seconds tick by. Kenneth was also quickly growing uneasy with the situation while he watched his savings wither away with each new selfish adventure.
When our last paychecks finally arrived, Jesse and I rented a car and asked Kenneth—but not his acquaintance—to join us. He agreed. Four hours later, Kenneth and I had jobs.
But our money was gone. With no cash to continue the life of living in an hotel, we got accustomed to the uncomfortable routine of sleeping in the car, if a person can actually get accustomed to such a thing.
Sleeping in a car is better than being completely homeless, but not by much. It’s cramped, claustrophobic and hot. We woke up continuously with bent backs, cricked necks and irritable tempers. It wasn’t surprising, considering that three of us—and all our personal belongings—were stuffed into a Chevy Cavalier.
We managed it for about a week. Then we gave up and purchased a tent, three sleeping bags and a fishing pole with my parents’ emergency credit card, which they graciously gave up to our cause. A coworker gave us a helpful hint that because we had a fishing pole, wherever we went we would be fishing and not camping, and thusly would have less of a chance of being thrown out. My parents also gave us one month’s storage unit rent so we were no longer encumbered on our gypsy’s journey with our personal belongings.
The first place we made camp was a strip of sandy beach near the harbor where the cruise ships dock. The first night passed without incident, but the second brought prowlers to our hobbit-like hovel of trees, peering into our zippered windows with tainted curiosity. On the third, we were robbed. They didn’t take much, just my CD player and our far more valuable fishing pole.
It scared us. Our tent was admittedly rather posh (that was my fault, since I insisted we get the best one available) and we feared that thieves would return assuming we owned more than we did. So we went back to the confines of the rental car and started an apartment search since all three of us now had jobs.
But we didn’t find an apartment. Most were too expensive—in Denver it costs about $900 for the first month and security deposit combined, compared to about $3,000 here. We had spent much of the month searching in vain for any place to live.
For the first time in our lives we were met with open, racial hostility. Many of our calls were not returned when it was learned that we were newcomers to the island. One man, having thought that Jesse was Japanese because of his stepfather’s last name appearing on caller ID, refused to converse with us further when we corrected him.
Then we attempted to apply for low-income housing but a DNA sample would have been more easily procured than their application’s myriad requirements. I don’t know how anyone could obtain all the necessary documentation they were asking for.
By that time I had been homeless for just a month; previously I had an apartment I lived in for a year and a half, a bank account I’d held for three years and a mainland job I’d held for two years. I don’t know how they expected homeless people to carry documentation for all that in a tent. My employer, Marc Aurel, had even given us a letter of recommendation after knowing us just a few days, yet we still were unsuccessful.
In fact, Aurel was at the time our only help on the island. He hired us knowing our situation. Yet he always had words of encouragement for us, told us to try harder and not give up. He was one of the few who never made us feel like we were beneath him, or anyone else for that matter, just because of our predicament. For him and his genuine communal spirit, I will always be grateful.
But our apartment search did lead us past Breakwater Park. I noticed the caravan of cars and makeshift habitats and suggested we check it out. Without any idea of what might befall us, we pulled into the nearby parking lot and trudged up the hill with baited breath.
We found a lot of people—far more than you’d ever see from the road. Jesse and I moved up the uneven path serenaded by barking, territorial dogs, each step thudding on dirt with ominous uncertainty. The air had a thick, muggy feel, its particles adhering to my skin. I kept thinking of all the horror movies I’d seen that had started out this way.
Jesse and I were discussing our misgivings when Kenneth—who had gone exploring in another direction—called us back. He’d found a couple who sympathized with our plight and were offering their front yard, such as it was, for us to pitch our tent.
They also told Kenneth in no uncertain terms that Jesse and I were quite lucky to escape with our lives from that previous camping location, since the lowest of drug dealers and criminals commonly frequented that particular beach. That night we slept more peacefully than we had since our long lost nights in hotel rooms, even with shards of the rocky ground digging constantly into our flesh.
Kenneth had a knack for feeling quite at ease with our new neighbors, but Jesse and I had a more difficult time. We were constantly uncomfortable. We had no idea how to relate or even talk to them. We never knew what to say, or how to go about starting up friendly banter. We went to work, spent all of our waking hours as far from the park as possible and only returned at night to sleep.
We awoke each morning to the promising whisper of the sea and enjoyed the pleasure of watching our host couple fish and live off the land. Sometimes we would return to friendly notes stuck to bags of canned goods, juice and fruit cups—whatever they could spare. Never did they force us out of our comfort zone; they accepted us as we came.
They also never asked for anything in return, though I did share my cigarettes freely and brought back extra food from Burger King when we had enough cash for a treat. They shared what little they owned with kind hearts, while so many others we came across blessed with abundance selfishly hoarded to excess.
On Thanksgiving Eve it was pretty rainy and I had a cold, so my parents gave the three of us the gift of a hotel room. There we feasted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cold cut platters and cable television. We all took real showers and slept in real beds with real pillows—the little things that had been ours during easier times but were now quite rare. It was more than we could dream of.
During the holiday season we had no place to go aside from work and our nylon nest, so we became mall rats. We watched people bustling about searching for the perfect gifts, children sitting on Santa’s lap and people just going about their lives so easily and somewhat shamefully taken for granted. I didn’t begrudge these people their comfortable lives, but it was a sobering sight when I didn’t even know if we’d have a roof over our heads by Christmas morning.
As it turned out, we did get a roof for Christmas morning. It was an ‘ohana in a Filipino neighborhood in Kahului. The owners were extremely kind, but the children ran around like it was City of God. It was a two-bedroom house, and once we moved in, Kenneth’s girlfriend joined us from the mainland.
We were even blessed with a tiny tree and a few thoughtful, precious presents sent to us from family. Admittedly, we’d still be just breakwater homeless if my parents had not come to the rescue yet again, lending us $3,000 for the one place willing to rent to us.
At the time of their much-needed assistance, they’d met Jesse only once and had never before lain eyes upon Kenneth. But they gave everything they could spare to give us a real chance of starting a life on Maui.
So many of Hawai’i’s homeless don’t have families to rely upon, people they can turn to in times of need. They have only their own, for as though they warrant much discussion, they do not warrant much active involvement aside from wayward, pitying glances or disgruntled grimaces tossed here and there.
They’re left to struggle within the limitations of their reality unless offered a helping hand. But what hand might reach out to them, lift them up, dust them off and give them a fighting chance? The community in which they live, that’s who.
Every night I slept in Breakwater Park I lay down on sharp rock shards. Every morning I awoke in Breakwater Park I trudged up the hill from Kahului to Wailuku to prepare for work in a public restroom. It was the most humiliating and eye-opening experience of my life.
If Hawai’i wishes to eliminate its problem of homelessness, the solution lies within understanding the nature and diversity of those people who make up the homeless population. Don’t pity, sympathize or turn a blind eye.
Instead, try studying, scrutinizing and recognizing them for what they are. Their ranks are just as diverse as any other class of people or tier of society. MTW