I have a snapshot of two neighbors talking story at my friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Hana. They don’t know each other all that well, but would be considered warm acquaintances, in the way that folks who live in a small town often are. There’s nothing unusual about that. What IS unusual is that one is an international pop star and the other is a homeless guy. And no one thought twice about it. We were probably as judgmental as any small town. It’s just that the simple condition of living under a tarp didn’t have a lot of stigma attached. It just is. So for many years, the idea of ‘homeless’ brought up images of either people I knew on a first name basis, or documentaries of displaced Hawaiians tearfully being forced to leave land they believed to be sacred and ancestral. In other words, I vacillated between acceptance and guilt. You know, that middle ground of ambivalence?
But then I moved to Lahaina and it all changed.
My place of employment is the UH Maui College’s Lahaina Education Center. Located in a well-kept subsidized apartment complex, the Ed Center is a newly renovated, satellite campus that has been in existence for only six years. It has state-of-the-art communication systems, services students of the densely populated west side of the island of Maui and is about a quarter of a mile from the popular Lahaina Cannery Mall. Between the Ed Center and the Mall are a few acres of overgrown nothing. Or at least that’s what I originally thought.
Not long after my move I learned that within all those scrub trees, weeds and red dirt was a teeming homeless population. The complex manager complained about them, my assistant was afraid of them and it was pointed out to me that they used our water from an outside faucet. I thought they were all being remarkable closed-minded and – uh – what’s the opposite of magnanimous? Well, whatever it is – they were being it. So they drank water from our hose.. so what? They occasionally used the corner of the back of the building for shelter, so what? I gladly looked the other way.
But within a few months my own “magnanimity” began to change a little. One early Saturday evening I drove by the Center and noticed seven five gallon water jugs lined up against our wall, and a figure near the faucet. I slowed down to get a better idea of what I was seeing and realized the owner of the water jugs was taking a full on shower! I was startled, a little confused and not willing to deal with it at the moment. So I kept driving. Wait. This is not “getting a drink of water.” For the most part, I let it go. But that vision planted the first seed of uneasiness within me. I moved on.
The other interesting development at the Ed Center was a large increase in the number of students in their 50s. Having done a midlife career change myself, I was initially delighted to see this. But I began to notice – these students seemed particularly careworn, totally clueless about their majors and not particularly interested in education in general. They also were technologically inept – which surprised us, as they spend hours on end in the computer lab. The only thing that really caught their attention was the process for receiving Financial Aid. It finally occurred to us – these new students were our “Empty Lot” neighbors. A few (okay ONE) is using the opportunity to actually improve her place in life. She’s gotten the hang of computers, is doing well in her classes and – I believe – is now staying at Ka Hale A Ke Ola, a temporary housing resource center. The others have either fallen of the radar, been asked to leave due to inebriation or extreme odor, or spend their time writing appeal letters explaining why they weren’t able to complete classes and why they qualify for having their financial aid reinstated.
Speaking of inebriated…
We’ve had other challenges. Once we realized our water costs had spiked tremendously, we installed the faucet handles that needed a key to open. This led to vandalism, which led to actually locking our back gate at night, which led to more vandalism. I finally stopped locking the gate and the water faucet. It wasn’t worth it. The most unnerving times were when we’d come to work to find nonsensical rambling letters tucked into our windows. One instance was after a security camera had been installed. Checking the previous night’s recording, we watched the person who wrote the notes – pacing, writing, pacing, talking, pacing, writing. I recognized him as a person who had been upset with me several days before.
By now that seed of uneasiness had sprouted into a little thorny shrub about in the middle of my solar plexus.
Around this time we heard that the owners of the vacant lot was finally going to clear it out. Completely, permanently. My reaction was immediate and two-fold. I felt great relief but also felt something else, a sort of weird low key anxiety. Where would they go? They’re still people, and people need a place to be. Not just to sleep, but to BE. As my relief grew for myself, a nervousness grew for them. Wow, had I fallen into the “not in my neighborhood” trap? Yikes.
Soon, the clean out began. Crews were brought in the clear out the “stuff.” Large piles of what I consider to be junk began to appear. Old cars, carts, frames, wire things that were no longer recognizable, rusted out appliances, a red Radio Flyer wagon. The oddest item was a broken electronic treadmill.
That was months ago and the acreage has been cleaned, razed and being readied for whatever commercial endeavor that’s planned. Our water bill is back to normal, I no longer have to respectfully move shopping carts outside of our area and we haven’t gotten scary notes in ages.
So part of me is relieved, for sure. But there’s that subtext that keeps running through my brain, like that ticker on the bottom of the CNN screen:
Where did they go? Where will they go next? What’s the solution?
The apartment manager put it in perspective a little. His matter of fact response is – if they were willing to pee in a cup, they’d have a place to stay (referring to our Resource Center). True, I get it. But still…
Again, things are much better at the Ed Center. We even feel confident enough to install an outdoor utility sink, in anticipation of offering hands on type classes like painting or community gardening.
But I wonder about my former neighbors, and, although muted, the thorny shrub of uneasiness is still there. I realized this yesterday, while filling out my annual Maui United Way pledge form. When I noticed that Feed My Sheep, an organization that offers free meals to whomever needs them was on the list of United Way recipients, I immediately designated them as the organization to receive my whole donation for the coming year. Does an action like that help? Did it assuage my nagging, nonspecific guilt? Only temporarily. On both counts.
Here’s the thing…
It seems we have a number of problems for which we have not yet identified practical solutions and this is one of many. So I sigh and push it to the back of my brain, to be re-examined on another day.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:34 – 40