A HOME WITHOUT A HOUSE
Choosing to be houseless
BY IEVA BYTAUTAITE
It’s a Saturday evening, and Jesse Lopez finally can enjoy his day off. He spent most of the day doing laundry and cleaning up his tent. He’s sitting on a 10-foot log placed strategically nearby, next to a fire pit at Kalaeloa Beach Park. His black hair is highlighted by streaks of gray, which seem to be overtaking his well-kept mullet. He's ready to have some fun.
Lopez works full time as a mechanic's helper at Campbell Industrial Park, making around $15 an hour. He’s there 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, usually working in what the mechanics call the “tire room,” mounting and dismounting tires, sorting them and patching up holes. It’s not easy work, and 56-year-old Lopez knows he can’t continue at this pace forever.
Lopez has been houseless for more than four years now. An ugly divorce with his last wife left him living in his 2002 Mercury Cougar, with nine kids to provide for. Lopez was married once before, and the second time did not seem to be the charm.
After five years of marriage, he said he found out that his wife and mother of four kids had been cheating on him with a coworker. Maybe he had it coming, he acknowledges. His first marriage ended in divorce, too, after Lopez cheated on that wife. The second wife kicked him out of the house on Valentine’s Day and got a restraining order. “I wasn’t mad. I just let it go by. Cuz I know da truf would come out,” Lopez says.
Being homeless, or "houseless" as Lopez calls it, is not necessarily an unfortunate consequence but more like a choice. “It’s freedom,” he says. “I feel freedom over heah. I no need pay rent. I no need pay light. I no need pay watah. I get freedom.”
The number of homeless individuals on Oahu was 4,903 last year, according to the Department of Human Services Point in Time Count for the City and County of Honolulu. About 2,000 of those (1,939) are unsheltered, the highest number since the data was first collected in 2009. The number of homeless people has increased by 4 percent in the past two years. Of the 191 newly homeless, almost half (43 percent, or 82) were veterans.
Earlier this year, in the "State of the State" address, Governor David Ige said that an additional $8.3 million has been included in his budget to address homelessness, mostly to provide affordable housing units for struggling citizens. When asked if he would prefer living in an affordable apartment, or house, or his tent, Lopez just grins and says, “I’d stay right heah.”
Lopez's attitude raises an important question: How many other houseless individuals and families would prefer to live in beach parks rather than cramped apartments? And, could the government ever provide truly affordable housing, based on the cost of living and wages in Hawaii?
Perhaps the core of the problem has to do with the high cost of living in Oahu. Even earning $15 an hour, and working full-time, which Lopez does, is not enough to support him in Honolulu, let alone his large family. Taxes, rent, utilities, food, clothing and other expenses are quick to leave a full-time wage-earner in a bind.
“I feel freedom ova heah. I no need pay rent. I no need pay light. I no need pay watah. I get freedom,” Jesse Lopez.
Lopez's situation – of choosing to be houseless – also raises a thought-provoking point: Are homes just an antiquated social norm? Is it really worth dedicating more than half of a paycheck to pay for a crummy, roach-ridden apartment, just to be considered normal according to our society standards?
Governor Ige’s homeless initiative is yet to show results. And while the legislature votes and debates on the homeless issue, Lopez will continue to set up and break down his site, every Thursday and Sunday, like he has been doing for the past three years.
Jesse Lopez wears "Locals" slippahs, which cost less than $5 at Long’s. They’re worn out to the shape of his feet but are a half-size too big. His heels are cracked and worn. His toes, yellowed and thick, seem to belong to a man who rarely pays attention to his feet.
A SIMPLE LIFE
To celebrate Saturday night, at the beach, Lopez grabs his friend Angie’s waist and pulls her in, wrapping one arm around her petite body, and with the other, he tries to balance a bottle of Heineken. Angie smiles, pushes him off and then retires to the corner of the camp, to a foldout chair hidden in the shadows of twilight.
“Angie comes and goes,” Lopez says. “She's like me; she lives in her car. We been togetha for ova a month now.”
“Two weeks, Jesse,” Angie says.
The sun had set only a few minutes ago, coloring the sky a myriad of warm colors, but the tall trees cast long dark shadows across the camp. Angie lights up a cigarette, her fifth or sixth of the evening, and stares off into the fire. Lopez follows her with his eyes, then turns back to his co-workers, who are busy mixing drinks of pineapple Ciroc and pineapple juice. “It’s called pineapple on pineapple,” one of his coworkers explains. Journey’s '80s hit “Don’t Stop Believing” is blasting out of Jessie’s Ion Explorer wireless sound system, which is sitting, at an angle, on top of Lopez’s Cougar.
Brand new, that speaker is worth almost a day’s worth of work to Lopez. But he doesn’t seem to mind that at any moment, as the right amount of bass hits, the speaker easily could slide right off the roof of the Cougar. That car, on a right-front panel, not only bears its owner’s name, it also is decorated with three crooked crosses.
Lopez moves his hips to the music, and as he dances, his belly jiggles. He’s not wearing a shirt tonight. His dark, round gut hangs over the belt looped around the waist of his work pants. As he sings along and laughs, his wide smile reveals blackened, gapped teeth, but he doesn’t seem self-conscious about the shape he's in, the teeth or his dancing. Lopez instead fumbles with his low-cost Android phone, trying to find another hit to blast through the speakers.
Jesse’s tent decked out with lights, speakers and a generator
Jesse’s camp among the many other tents at Kalaela Beach Park campground
Jesse Lopez looks on as he stands next to his tent
An old bus rim serves as Jesse’s fire pit
Jesse’s 2002 Mercury Cougar bears his name and three crosses revealing his deep dedication to God
Sun sets over Kalaeloa Beach Park
A trashed hideaway
Kalaeloa Beach Point used to be pristine, seemingly untouched by human hands. Untamed. Secluded. A great spot for fishing and surfing. Now, it is littered with remnants of camps and trash, memories of the many families who have called this place home.
Broken children’s toys are scattered throughout the thick green bushes, along with car parts, beer bottles, cigarettes and condom wrappers. A place far different than it was a decade or two ago.
Randy (who asked for his last name not to be used), is in his 60s, and has been coming to this park since he was a teenager. He graduated from Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, and this secluded beach always had been his hideaway. Randy served in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school. He then was stationed in Okinawa and sent to Vietnam to fight in the war. After many years away from home, he got out of the military and returned to Hawaii. He is now retired and comes to Kalaeloa Beach Park often.
“It’s so trashed now. I cannot even bring mah kids here no more,” Randy says.
Randy is sitting on a foldout camping chair behind his Nissan Xterra. Its back tires are almost half way sunk in the sand, but his four wheel drive will surely get him out, he says. He’s done this many times before.
Randy and his longtime friend Wendell (who also declined to share his last name) set up a blue canopy under which rests a cooler full of beer and bottled water, chips, dip and a table with chairs.
“It’s so trashed now. I cannot even bring mah kids here no more,” beachgoer Randy says.
Wendell is in his 40s, and like Randy, he comes to Kalaeloa Beach Park often. He served in the U.S. Army and now works as a propane delivery guy. His job keeps him busy, and he likes to retreat to the seclusion of his beach on his days off.
“Ever since what, the recession, there’s more of them here, and damn, how they trashed the place,” Randy says.
They noticed the tents multiply in the last 10 years. Although the land is government property, not much is done to monitor who is camping at the campgrounds and whether or not they have a permit.
“I heard there’s only one guy who patrols the beach on Ewa side,” Wendell says. “Once in a while, they clear them out, but then they move to a different spot and then come back again.”
Both men are skeptical about Governor Ige’s plan to build more shelters and affordable housing.
“Better use that $8 million to clean up this place. Clear out the bushes. Some of them don’t even want to live in a shelter; they like it here. They like their freedom,” Wendell said.
It is hard to imagine this beach as untouched as Randy and Wendell remember it. After a few minutes of walking through the sand, feet become blackened by burned wood and charcoal that litter the grounds. The sand is almost a dark gray color in some areas. Fishing wire and other trash poke out of the ground.
“The locals are at fault, too. They come here to burn their pallets and leave everything on the beach. The wood, the nails. It’s bad,” Wendell says. “Before, we used to leave our cars unlocked over here and have no worries. Now I have to make sure I lock everything up or who knows what will go missing,” Randy said. There just is no easy solution to help fight the litter, crime and houselessness in Hawaii, they acknowledge.
Oahu’s high cost of living keeps many like Lopez houseless, even though, in their situations, of working full time, with a decent job, they probably could afford a modest home in other states.
Although Randy doesn’t like what has become of this once-glorious beach, he cannot blame just the homeless. Some people, he said, are just unlucky and get into bad situations. Their families are then forced to live in this environment and lifestyle. “We all have opportunities. We make bad and good decisions. But trashing a place, whether you’re homeless or not, is never right.”
A number of homeless camps have emerged on Oahu, in these troubled times, including some, like The Harbor in Waianae Boat Harbor (read more here), with an extensive community structure.
The chances of the Kalaeloa “settlement” becoming an organized houseless community like the Harbor are slim, mostly because it is located on government property. It is also not clear what the Governor’s Leadership Team on Homelessness and the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, lead by Scott Morishige, are planning to do with people like Lopez, who don't want to get into a home again.
One of the main goals of the council is to get people off the streets and into shelters or permanent housing, but it is unclear what they plan to do with people who choose to be houseless. Lopez’s fate, along with the numerous other families and individuals like him, remains undecided. But until someone clears Kalaeloa Beach Park, and keeps it cleared, Lopez will continue to live a simple life, in his home without a house.
- A HOME WITHOUT A HOUSE-
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