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Make wealthy pay for homeless havens

August 3, 2017 - 12:05am

As I enter into the fourth quarter of my so-called life I’m reminded of a favorite quote from my mentor, Oliver Hardy: “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley.”

Born before the Pearl Harbor attack, I’ve experienced the world’s population explode from 2.2 billion in 1941 to over 7.5 billion today. Not a sustainable trend to say the least. There’s not much I can do about global problems, but I can act and get involved locally.

I discovered the Big Island 40 years ago and have yet to find a better place to relocate. Our island is a microcosm for what is happening globally — a few very rich getting richer and the masses getting poorer. Which brings me to the biggest problem facing Big Islanders, our runaway homeless population.

I’ve heard that we are one of the highest per capita homelessness areas in the country. Homelessness is an equal opportunity group — there but for fortune go you or I. If I were homeless living in one of our country’s big cities, I would beg my caseworker to give me a one-way plane ticket to the Big Island and no longer be their urban problem. Camping at Kona’s Old Airport Park sounds pretty good. Even better would be to set up camp at Kukio, maybe with a spa membership at the Four Seasons thrown in. Alas, I would be booted before I could secure my tent pegs.

Now for the good news. Living on a beautiful island with lots of room and wealth presents unique opportunities to solve our problems. All that is needed to end our homelessness is a good plan, lots of cash, community involvement, and a heavy dose of tough love.

It’s not highly publicized, but I would guess that over 10 percent of our nation’s wealthiest people have real estate interests on this island, mostly for seasonal vacation visits. If living behind locked gates gives you a sense of security, it’s your right, but there should be a price to pay. I suggest setting up a fund to create a Homelessness Division under the County Department of Housing, run by private sector volunteers appointed by the mayor. Charge all the Big Islanders living behind closed gates a one-time fee of 1 percent of their gross income. It’s my educated guess that the net worth of Big Islanders is well over a trillion dollars.

This County Homeless Fund potentially will generate several billion dollars. It would be a substantial amount and a good startup fund to build homeless shelters in an area that would serve both sides of our island, perhaps Ocean View. In exchange, Ocean View would get better roads, drinkable water, and a state of the art high school from this fund. Build two separate homeless shelters, one that is drug, alcohol and smoke free, and the other a “wet” facility where drugs, alcohol, and smoking are monitored but not prosecuted. Provide employment for those able to work. Ban begging islandwide. Have covered, open-air facilities in both Kona and Hilo to process and transport homeless to work sites and back to the shelters. Provide one-way airfares to the homeless that are from elsewhere and have no family here that can support them.

This gated Community Fund could also be used to upgrade our public school system and police department. The problem with our educational system is that Kamehameha Schools and other private K-12 (HPA, for example) siphon off our high achievers, contributing to a semi-literate Big Island population.

How about we pay the public teachers between $90,000 and $100,000 per year based on performance and not seniority? Drop out of the State Department of Education if necessary. Guarantee public high school graduates free college tuition as long as they make grades. Our Police Department personnel are the defacto social workers dealing with the homeless. Pay them the same as the public school teachers.

Remember, no matter how much money and armed private security you have, you are only as safe as your neighbors. How do you keep out a neighbor who can not feed family? Looking over the above, I see that the ACLU would have a field day protecting the civil rights of the poor. Unfortunately, I have no solution for the homeless who suffer from mental illness.

A parting note: My economics college advisor told me 55 years ago, “If our form of democracy is to succeed, the wealthy must voluntarily give back.”

Ron Roberts is a resident of Kapaau.

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