What Is It with the People Who End Up on the Streets?

First Published August 31, 2015
Updated May 19, 2020

Homeless with a College Degree

Even people with college degrees can be homeless. For example, there was a Caucasian man with a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious university and was 57 years old at the time of his homelessness in Washington, DC.

The following is a compilation of interviews with him, and my 2015 first-hand sightings of, or interactions with homeless people in Honolulu.

When I visited the place in 2015, a remarkable change occurred since my previous year’s visit to the islands. In 2015, the homeless presence is much more visible to tourists and locals alike, which is the impetus for this blog.

For most of us, even if the possibility of not having a place to stay could happen at any time, most of us do not become homeless, so what is it with the people who eventually become homeless?

Three things are on these people’s minds every day. 

  1. How will I sleep soundly? 
  2. Where will I shower and defecate? 
  3. How will I do what I do without intruders stopping or hindering me? In other words, how do I guard my space?

Those Who Make Their Own Shelter

One group of homeless are those who desire to live independent of government and who do not want to be part of it, nor benefit from any institution or organization. Not only do these people not want to pay taxes and bills, because most of us do not want to as well; however, these groups of homeless do not pay taxes and bills. These homeless have their specific daily challenges however. 

Regarding sleeping conditions, they may need to sleep in shifts. For example, one person sleeps during a shift, while his friend watches the area. Then, it is the friend’s turn to sleep, etc. Besides the reliance on at least one other person, this homeless person also knows how to use free natural resources like waterfalls, bodies of water, and streams. 

The following are three examples in Honolulu of those who attempt to live independent of government, institutions, or organizations:

A Tent Next to a Fancy Condominium Complex

The first example is of a homeless person in a valley, near a waterfall.

I got off at a bus stop at a high-rise condominium complex and there was no public parking in sight. Regardless, I walked towards the nearest natural area, as I was drawn to the foliage and nature. So was another person as well, as you will see.  

Next to the condominium, I could sense a stream before I saw it. There was more greenery. I hear more rustling of leaves and perhaps a few more birds. There are slightly more breezes, meaning it is cooler.

Even if there is no big sign that says “Park,” I did see a sign that said that what I was approaching was government property. I then walked towards an opening to a 50 feet wide lush swath of vegetation, which was demarcated by a chain-link fence.

As I walked onto the vegetation, the sounds of the stream became louder. At this point, 150 feet into my walk, I spotted a blue tarp and a man who sat underneath it. As the tarp stood at the end of a 250 feet long path, a person under the tarp can spot an “intruder” from a relatively far distance, which answers the question of how the homeless deal with intruders.

A Tent on a “Leftover” Piece of Land

The second example is homeless who live on a “left-over,” seldom frequented, wilderness-like land surrounded by rushing cars along all three of its sides.  

This place, compared to the above example, was even less accessible by automobile, and on foot, I had to walk outside, with no shade, in the hot sun. If one did not bring a hat to wear or water to drink, it would be easy to get dehydrated and abort the walk to this left-over piece of land. Note: if one had water on hand and kept hydrated continuously, one would be able to discover many more, otherwise inaccessible wild places.

I was visiting this plot of land, something ignored by most of us, but not all of us! By now, you will notice that by going on foot, I get to see a lot more things than my automobile driving counterpart. More importantly, these independent homeless have access to resources car-drivers, and unprepared pedestrians cannot get access.

Again, like the first example above, I saw a similar blue tarp from a distance, and I turned around and did not go further.

Just Music

The third example of a supposed homeless person was at a park next to a bay, which was different than the above two examples, in which the protection mechanisms were mainly sight. In this case, it was sound.

In broad daylight, among a large area of unkempt head-high grass, I heard music coming from close by, even though barely anyone was around except for a passing pedestrian and a bicycle rider. One could hear the music, but not see the source of the music, which is a very unfamiliar feeling for me. I assumed the music was coming from the home of a homeless person, and then, I left the area because I could not make sense of me being able to hear music, and not determine from where the music came.

In all three settings mentioned above, if evidence or cues of a homeless person were not there, I would have gone to the end of the path and stayed much longer. Instead, I aborted all three visits to these “parks” or natural areas early.

So, the homeless in the above types of non-mutual living arrangements deter intruders or visitors from revisiting. Then, as a result, the place starts to feel derelict, which may make the area even more attractive to the homeless, which starts an unusual cycle of “property management.” 

The property owner, the City and County of Honolulu or the State of Hawaii must send police officers, every once and a while, to clear away the homeless. Such is the independent homeless person’s life, always on the lookout for intruders and the police.

Those Who Stay Under Someone Else’s Roof

Another group of the homeless population are those who stay under someone else’s roof, likely a homeless shelter, in which one cannot remain indefinitely.

Some shelters house dozens of people at a time. Imagine being in a residential-like setting with 50 other people in one large space. With worldwide actions over COVID-19, such living conditions would make it easy to catch any contagious virus.

Besides being a potential health hazard, another downside is people at the facility may not get along with each other. Imagine, for example, a shelter with 50 men, many who are out from prison, and then two men quarrel over a female. Therefore, it is prudent to keep the peace by separating the sexes, especially during mealtimes.

In addition to the public health aspect and the potential for anti-social behavior, you will begin to see that a homeless shelter is even more undesirable for the independent type of homeless person, the type who have their tents.

Other Things

Lastly, there is a small but important note, which has its many subtleties. So they should not be robbed, and they look like they should ask you for money, or as a way to deter regular people from being around them; some of the homeless don’t want to wear new things for fear of looking “rich.” So, beware of giving to the homeless nice-looking things, which is a complicated topic.

Hopefully, through the above tidbits, you can understand the pressing social, health, and security concerns that face the homeless and those around them.

Related Links:

In Honolulu: the Dreaded Bathroom Situation

In Honolulu: Making Things More Convenient for the Squatter, Gardener, Pedestrian

In Honolulu: The Man Who Asked Me for Money and then Pulled Out Something


Emy Louie is a “kama’aina/haole” (native/non-native person) who adventures to places on Oahu, Hawai’i, where “kama’aina” do not usually go to, that tourists go to, and vice versa. She lived in Honolulu in the ’70s and ’80s and visits Honolulu annually.

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