Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, December 27, 1999

Putting everything
in its place

THE first thing we can do to help the homeless is to quit calling everyone who either chooses or ends up living on the streets homeless.

It is a catch-all word that mischaracterizes the situation and therefore leads any dialogue away from the true issues. "Homeless" is also a deliberately emotion-packed word designed to elicit, no, demand sympathy. How can anyone not be sympathetic to someone without a home?

The question of what to do with the homeless comes up every winter because, baby, it's cold outside, at least in places like Detroit and New York. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been hammered by the press for clearing the streets of the homeless and putting them in city shelters where they could be warm and fed.

Hillary Clinton, running (supposedly) against Giuliani for the U.S. Senate branded his action as cold and heartless. I don't understand why allowing these people to freeze on the street with nothing but their Constitutional rights to keep them warm is more humane than forcing them off city streets and into shelters.

It's not as cold in Hawaii in the winter, but we have our share of people who live on the streets and we generally use this time of year to discuss the problem. But we can't really discuss it unless we stop referring to these people as homeless. As long as we see them as one large group with one major common problem, nothing will ever be accomplished.

THE fact that these people do not have a home is only one of a number of elements involved in the problem. Some are drug addicts. Some are criminals. Some are down on their luck. Some are lazy. Some are simply out of their minds. The trick to solving the problem is figuring out who is who.

I have suggested before that a system of triage be established to categorize the homeless. Triage was first used by military doctors to categorize incoming casualties. Injured people were separated into three groups: those who were hopeless, those who needed immediate help and those who could wait. You could say this system is rather cold-blooded. But it also was practical. If you spent your time working on a hopeless case, several others who could have been saved might die.

Putting Hawaii's homeless through triage would establish three categories: people who are so mentally ill that they pose a danger to themselves and others by being left to fend for themselves on the street, people who want to change their lives, and people who simply choose to live on the street.

It behooves a compassionate society to protect those who need protecting. As much as forcing people into confinement in a mental health facility is heart-breaking, it is better for the individual and the community in the long run. And it's a lot better than letting a mentally ill person bounce around on the street until he breaks a law and ends up in the prison system instead of a treatment facility.

A system needs to be set up to really help the second group, those who want help. It is key that these people be given opportunities to rejoin society.

As for the third group. Well, I know a guy, a white-collar type and former aide to a well-known politician who simply chooses to live on the streets and sleep at the Peanut Butter ministry. He's one of those people who just doesn't want to work. It's a free country. But I don't think he's entitled to panhandle, crash on the sidewalks or otherwise make a nuisance of himself. And he doesn't deserve to be called homeless.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to or

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