When the red mist cleared I was standing over a 90-pound woman, shrieking rage at her prone form.
I’d flown to Oahu from Kauai for ear surgery the day prior. It was an unpleasant experience that left me with pain the opiates couldn’t touch and a three-day purgatory in a cheap hotel near Kapiolani Park. An unhappy man in an unpleasant environment forced from his hotel room by hunger. While standing on Ala Moana Blvd., waiting to cross, I was approached by a young homeless woman. Protruding addict cheek bones, nasal haole twang, a shockingly aggressive tone.
“Hey! Give me some money.” I had a few dollars to spare, but I was in a less than charitable mood. My ear was throbbing. The heat was stifling. I wanted nothing more than to retreat to my hotel room and choke down the overpriced tourist garbage carried in a bag beneath my arm. “Give me your food then.”
I replied with a curt “No.” ”Someone should give you a slap,” she replied, reaching up and cuffing the side of my heavily bandaged head. Pure lizard brain transformation. Fight not flight, atavistic fury. When I’d regained some rationality my chest was heaving, she was on the ground screaming, and countless tourists were staring our way. She ran one way. I ran the other. Turned the lock on my door as the adrenaline wore off. Heavily rattled, first came the tears, then the shakes. Finally anger. I called my wife for support, but I ended up ranting. “Fucking sub-human scum, haole trash, white girl junkie out here sucking off aloha. Sweep the streets. Kill them all.” This is not how I want to behave. This is not the person I want to be.
One can recite a litany of reasons for the homelessness epidemic (with estimates ranging between 7,000 and 8,000) in Hawaii. Wages are appallingly low, housing costs are outrageously high. Access to treatment for addiction is lacking. Mental health care near non-existent. Arrivals deplane every day. They’re fleeing problems they can’t truly escape, devoid of the means to establish a life on our archipelago. The native Hawaiians have been dispossessed, stripped of culture and land and language. Left mired in hopelessness.
There is no single reason, no simple solution. There are too many causes, too many obstacles, to wrap up a fix in a neat little package.
My reaction sprang from a deeply-rooted, terrifying, emotional place. Sure, my day was terrible, but my worst moment pales in comparison to the daily reality of a young homeless, transplant addict attempting to survive on the streets of Honolulu. I’m not sure how far I strayed into the realm of the wrong, instinctual self-defense is hard-wired into us all. But I know full well the mental space I was inhabiting was far from kind. That I could’ve handed her a few dollars and continued on my way. But I didn’t. My haze of personal pain blinded me to hers. I saw nothing but a bedraggled beggar, undeserving of the pittance in my pocket. I’ve managed to stumble my way into a dream life, and yet every day is a crushing struggle. The wants and needs and history that brought me here are complicated. I demand to be viewed as more than a snap evaluation of my exterior. How dare I fail to extend that to others? Focusing on my own problems, to the exclusion of all others, is a myopic way to live. We’ve all made the wrong decisions, been self-destructive, let cruel fate trick us into accepting an existence that fails to improve our lot. Most of us are lucky enough to dodge consequences so harsh that we end up on the street. Until we don’t.
We humans can’t help but label. Group people together to order our world. It’s natural and easy and allows us to take a “logical” stance. Embrace an it’s-all-the-rage cold and cruel bootstrap mentality. Turn your back on the struggles of others and focus solely on your own.
What kind of world does that create? We live in an uncaring universe – every circumstance built on an element of luck. Piling on serves no one.
It would be naive to claim there aren’t irredeemable humans. Those so vicious and predatory and self-obsessed that they poison all they touch. But economic status is no indication of the condition. Some rob and pimp and procure. Others quote Rand and employ objectivism as a justification for misdeeds. But those pitiful lost souls are only worth seeing so they can be safely ignored. Pointing at a few while turning a blind eye to the many only furthers the former’s campaign of terror and destruction.
The homeless are no different than you or me. They are human beings who feel joy and sadness. Success and struggle. Victory and defeat. They love and hate and bleed and heal. They hope for the best, too often receive the worst. They, too, need community, a sense that others care for them. They do not deserve to live invisibly among us, no matter how much some wish that they would. They will not disappear. Actions that criminalize their existence, such as Honolulu’s sit-lie ban only serve to shuffle them around, displace people to the outskirts of society where the problem will fester rather than heal.
There is no easy answer. The causes of homelessness are too varied, the solutions too complex.
But there is a first step. We must embrace compassion.
It’s not a switch to be flipped, a mindset to turn on. It’s a goal, an attempt. A desire to be a decent person, to help others, and to recognize the moment when your own weakness or anger leads you astray. The road to success, if it truly exists, will be paved with failure and frustration. But the same can be said of anything worth doing.
Just try to help. It doesn’t matter how. Don’t do it because people deserve it. Do it because it’s right. Because you should care. Because life is inherently empty and pointless and none of us deserve anything. Because sometimes all you can do is provide access to the solace found at the bottom of a bottle. Sometimes blissful emptiness is what’s needed to face the coming day.
We have to help others, even if it costs us more than we’d like to pay. Perhaps especially then.