2016 Feature, Small Newsroom winner

The Harbor: This Waianae Homeless Camp Is Not What You’d Expect

Jessica Terrell

Honolulu Civil Beat

Feature, Small Newsroom


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Personal and powerful, thanks to reporters who spent time embedded in the community to tell the story right.

About the Project

In Honolulu, homelessness is almost inescapable. It’s hard to go anywhere on the island of Oahu without seeing another cluster of raggedy tents in a park or an empty lot, or someone sleeping on a sidewalk.

And it can be almost inescapable for those who fall into it. Nowhere in the United States is the shortfall between the median income and the high cost of housing greater. Perhaps nowhere else is the downward slide easier, or the difficult climb out of homelessness steeper.

Hawaii has the highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country.

And yet, city and state officials have focused less on preventing homelessness than on keeping the homeless out of sight, through periodic “sweeps” that seize their belongings and push people from the streets in one part of town to another, keeping them on the move.

The public discussion has revolved around not who these people are and what brought them to this point, but on how to force them out of Waikiki or other prominent neighborhoods.

But the first time Civil Beat reporter Jessica Terrell saw the misshapen tents and tarps tucked into the woods next to the Waianae Boat Harbor, she felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu. She walked into those woods and immediately knew she had to write about this place and the people who live there.

Jessica, our education reporter, grew up homeless. She remembered well when she was the one who kids threw rocks at, when she had to sleep on the beach, live out of a battered van or on a ratty-looking raft her family built from scrap. Born in Mexico to bohemian parents, she was raised living a hand-to-mouth existence, busking with a family band on the streets from New Orleans to New York.

When Jessica proposed spending time at the boat harbor camp, reporting on these people as, simply, members of our community living little-understood lives, we knew she would tell their stories with heart and soul and a unique insight.

To report these stories, Jessica gave up her apartment in Waikiki and moved to Waianae for several months, spending her days and evenings at the camp, celebrating her 32nd birthday there, keeping a journal of her thoughts and observations of the intimate moments of daily life in a homeless encampment that lives by its own rules.

She spent a long time building up trust among the community, listening and listening some more. She considered with great care how to balance the desires of some at the camp not to be named or photographed with the need to tell their stories truly and well.

The result was a three-day series, “The Harbor,” about the state’s largest homeless encampment and the lives of those who wind up or pass through there. The multimedia series uses audio photo captions and video (including a drone video) in an effort to allow readers to hear and see for themselves the people whose stories are otherwise unheard.

Jessica’s deeply reported series provoked a strong reaction in a state where people mostly avoid making waves. Her stories, which described how those in The Harbor struggled to deal with drugs and conflict, and created their own system of self-governance, led state leaders to take a new approach.

Despite controversial calls from some lawmakers to “sweep” the encampment, state officials decided to work with leaders within the homeless community there to forge a new path forward. After the series was published, the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board passed a resolution supporting leaders Jessica had profiled, calling on the state to give the residents of The Harbor a lease for the land.

Leaders at The Harbor say they’ve been buoyed by an outpouring of support from the surrounding communities that occurred after the series ran. Readers donated a generator, several portable showers and a dozen composting toilets, scores of taro plants, assistance in creating a community garden, and more than $1,000 in Christmas presents for children living in the camp.

Civil Beat has been contacted by several groups, from local churches to the international nonprofit Pacific and Asian Affairs Council, seeking to help guide new efforts to help the homeless in Hawaii and to develop better strategies to help them with jobs, training and housing.

Without question, these stories have changed the conversation and impelled political leaders to seek a more productive approach to helping the homeless rather than shoving them once more out of sight.