Honolulu Lite


Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Where’s Sheriff
Andy when needed?

A copy editor disagreed with my characterization last week of Otis Campbell, the town drunk in the old "Andy Griffith Show," as "homeless."

I used Otis as a tongue-in-cheek example of how homeless people prefer large cities to small towns, which is why organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless routinely brand cities as "mean" while towns get off the hook.

In the same way it was silly for then-Vice President Dan Quayle to get in a lather over TV character Murphy Brown's pregnancy, it's probably silly to argue over whether Otis was homeless or merely the town drunk, which, by the way, is pretty harsh. Otis had "alcohol issues" and every time he got "full as a tick," Sheriff Andy would give him his own cell in the police station.

But maybe it's not that silly to bring Otis into this conversation. Because Otis was homeless. Even though he had a home he could go to, sometimes he wouldn't. Or sometimes his wife wouldn't let him in the door smelling like a corn liquor still.

THIS HAPPENS TO BE Homeless Awareness Week in Hawaii and one of the things we all should be aware of is the fact that we actually don't know how many "homeless" there are in Hawaii and who they are.

I've always felt the problem is in using one word -- "homeless" -- to describe a disparate group of people. For many of those we see lying curled up under bushes or pushing shopping carts along the street, not having a home is not their problem. It is the end result of other problems: mental illness, drug addiction, joblessness, family strife and -- though we really aren't allowed to talk about this -- simply a desire to drop out of the working world.

The common sense way of fixing a problem, say repairing your house, is to figure out what's wrong with it first. You don't just say the "house is broken" and ask for money. You inspect the roof, the foundation, the plumbing, etc. Then you come up with a plan to address each of those problems.

But we've never truly investigated "homelessness" to find out what the problems are in Hawaii. We don't even know how many "homeless" there are. The numbers fluctuate from roughly 3,000 to up to a hard-to-believe 12,000.

San Francisco just took the draconian step of drastically cutting welfare payments to it's 3,000 homeless with the hope of moving some out of the city and keeping others from buying drugs and booze with tax money. You can disagree with the method, but at least they knew how many "homeless" they were dealing with.

Different people living on the street need different things. Otis needed a cell to sleep off a bender. Sheriff Andy should have forced him to attend AA meetings. (Otis would sue today.)

We need to find out how many Otises we have in Hawaii and what each one needs. We know they don't live in homes. The question is "Why?"

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. E-mail

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