Downtown Honolulu has a business section where one can find attorneys, bankers, and psychiatrists. Professionals with tax paying jobs. The other part of downtown Honolulu is adjacent to the business side and it is full of the people who have given up, or who have been ground down, or both. They are professional homeless people whose lives are devoted to their survival. The downtown Honolulu homeless population is comprised of two distinct groups. The seriously mentally ill and the drug involved. A person can be a member of both groups. In fact it is funny to think of someone with an addiction as otherwise mentally healthy. When I speak of the seriously mentally ill I speak of the remarkably numerous apparently delusional people in downtown Honolulu. At any given time you can hear someone yelling back at the voices downtown. The addicts that I have in mind are people with other issues as well as addiction. Both groups reside in downtown because they can get some sleep. Downtown Honolulu is one area where the homeless are not driven away and that is in the rundown part of town. No way in the world is the Honolulu Tourist Authority going to allow the streets of Waikiki to be marred by tourist encampments. Cops immediately drive the homeless out of there. They do not care where the homeless go, but they have to get up out of Waikiki! Downtown is a sort of refuge because officials don’t bother with the homeless very much. Maybe they have given up. Maybe officials want the outcasts to be centrally located and isolated from property holders.
The seedy side of downtown Honolulu shares space with the tiny Chinatown. Chinatown appears to be comprised of places selling knock off consumer goods and Chinese food that is not Americanized. No one else wants the homeless but I have noticed that the Chinese merchants have found ways to profit off of their existence, in my opinion. Do Chinese occupants tolerate these people because they make money on the down and out? I call the economic system of Chinese merchants and the homeless mutually reinforcing and interdependent criminality. Take food stamps, for example. Food stamps used to literally be stamps like coupons, so I am told. But like other payments there is now a card like a credit card called EBT for Electronic Benefit (I have to look up what the “T”
stands for!) Hawaii will give food stamps to anyone who is poor, whereas cash in the form of welfare payments goes to single people who demonstrate disability to a doctor. These people are not too disabled because they have it together enough to receive mail, check the mail for correspondence from welfare telling them when their mandatory doctor appointment has been scheduled. Then they go to the appointment with the doctor the state pays to verify a person’s disability. What’s more, they do what the doctor tells them they have to do in a treatment plan or they get cut off. They also get cut off for missing the appointment. First miss is loss of one month of benefits, then three months and then once you miss for a third time you have to wait six months with nothing but food stamps. No cash from the state. Needless to say, addicts get caught up in the daily quest of finding and using drugs and finding ways and means to get more. Very often homeless people with addictions just get food stamps. How do they spend the only legit income they have coming in? They usually trade the food stamps for cash, which the feds find very objectionable. There is always a merchant in Chinatown who will trade cash for food stamps. Always. Merchants in Chinatown will trade half of the value in cash. So $100 in food stamps is worth $50 cash. In the early 2000’s a person could walk into any merchant and present the EBT card and obtain cash openly at the register without even pretending to buy anything. You would never have thought the practice was illegal. One day I noticed that some of the people who reliably traded cash for food stamps were not in their usual spots. I heard the Feds came in and arrested some merchants for fraud which effectively put fear in the rest of the people. Now, in order to trade food stamps you have to go through a bit of a process which is annoying if you want to get high and do not want to tolerate a process, but there’s nothing else for it. You must know the merchant, or know someone who knows the merchant. The merchant will buy some food item with your card and slip you cash if no one in one of those tiny store is openly looking. I always had the feeling that where there is rampant criminality, people are paying attention to money changing hands, but that’s a hunch. I am not the only one who wonders what secret eyes are spying. Particularly nervous merchants try to use what little English they know to direct you to a cooperating merchant on a different street who will do the shopping and send you back with an initialed receipt to show how much you spent from your EBT card and that you spent it with the correct person. The original merchant will slip you some money, but only because they never have to handle your card so there is nothing for anyone to identify as definite food stamp fraud. Language barriers can make it difficult to know who and where the cooperating merchant is located. In Honolulu Chinatown they do not speak English. I assume the Chinese are speaking Chinese, either Mandarin or Cantonese, but how would I know for sure?
Mutually reinforcing criminality is not limited to food stamp fraud. There is also a lot of gambling. During the day groups of 30-50 older Chinese men spend their entire day outside, gathered in a circle watching card players or domino players who are in the center of the circle. There are tables in this outdoor area but the Chinese men can spend hours in a squatting position, watching, cheering, arguing, stacks of 100’s passing through many hands. There are similar groups made up of Filipino men who are in the local park, A’ala Park. The Chinese gamblers are across the street in the public walkway off of River Street. Both groups will eagerly buy stolen goods. The Chinese will also buy big bags of rice while the Filipinos prefer cases of spam or Vienna sausages to send back to their country. Canned meat, which is highly processed death in a can, is very popular among the locals here in Hawaii. The rice and spam diet is probably why Hawaiians have the shortest life expectancy of any race. I have heard spam called “oppression food,” since I guess it was introduced by the white man, who does not eat that stuff. Rice and spam are big sellers, (you can even get spam at McDonald’s for breakfast which reminds me of how McDonald’s in the South serves grits. You cannot get spam or grits at New York McDonald’s but I digress.) Yes a lot of spam is sold in the islands but it is not the Hawaiians doing the buying for consumption purposes in Chinatown. Spam is to trade. The locals are more likely to be poor and trading their food stamps for spam and rice to sell to other Asians. I have no stats just observations do take my words for what they are worth.
Boosters are another category of criminal. Boosters are shoplifters who steal stuff from stores to get drug money. They object to the word steal BC stores are not people and they oy “go to work” in stores. They never take from people. They are not thieves! In fact they hate thieves. They say that constantly. The boosters are almost as deluded about their character as I was about mine! Boosters are thieves who re-sell their stolen goods and their customers are in Chinatown. They know what to take to the gamblers in A’ala Park or along River Street. Alternatively, boosters can always find a market among Chinese merchants who have bars or stores where they sell food so foreign to us Americans that only Chinese enter those stores or fish markets to obtain goods. Americans just will not eat pig’s stomach or the scaly, claw like foot of the chicken. If you see a non-Chinese in their establishment the American is their to assist BC they are homeless and will take $30 under the table for an 8 hour work day. Tax evasion at its best depends on a constant supply of very poor people. Another reason an American might be present in a Chinatown establishment is to trade food stamps for cash or sell boosted items. When relationships develop, boosters will take “orders” or specific requests. An ordered item stolen at someone’s specific request commands half the retail price. Otherwise, boosters sell stuff for pennies on the dollar, hardly bothering to negotiate as long as they get something. They just need enough money to get high. Besides, easy come, ready go. In a place this small, stores in Ala Moana or where ever, get to know the thieves and are ready for them when they inevitably go back to the store that they robbed with such success maybe just a few hours ago. Boosters disappear for stretches of time because they get arrested a whole lot. As long as they keep the value of the stolen items below felony level of $250 or $200 (I forget which), the max penalty is 30 days in OCCC (Pronounced oh triple C), which is the Oahu equivalent to county jail. They get out and go back to their theft. They are as addicted to stealing as they are to drugs, from what I have seen. We will cover the addictive power of the hustle people use to obtain drug money in future posts.
Chinatown is not very big, just a few blocks, but the Chinese merchants support the drug economy. Chinatown has a few residential buildings, a couple are quite nice, but most are low income single room occupancy buildings, where residents share bathroom in the hall. The male and female bathrooms are usually on different floors. These SRO’s can be pretty grim but they are not all filthy and roach infested. It depends on management. These residences do not cater to addicts but are usually for people who work hard at low paying jobs. Addicts cannot put together enough money to score a room and the mentally ill downtown are too far gone to live inside without assistance they do not get. Maybe the merchants do not care BC they probably have enough money to live elsewhere. The Chinese shops are bustling during the day, stocked with items Americans do not even recognize, thus keeping those stores safe from boosters. But at night, Chinatown is devoid of Chinese who no doubt flee to a residence that is the fruit of all their hard labor and criminality. Again, I am speculating without true statistics.
There is a small strip of gentrification with trendy bars where there used to be porn outlets where a person could go into a booth and put quarters into a slot next to a tv screen that would show porn while the temporary resident smoked crack until the quarters ran out. This video booths are gone now, replaced or still standing empty. After hours Chinatown belongs to the underclass and the few hipsters do not make a dent in the spirit of the place. They are still too few in number. The nighttime streets of Chinatown are populated by homeless Americans with their cardboard box sleeping pallet or make shift tents. It is where the homeless bed down for the night, usually in the same spot with the same people night after night and many watch the business they are sleeping in front of to secure their place– as long as they are gone by 5 or 6 am when the cops come to roust them. Most of the homeless clean the area where they sleep. It is only the small minority of homeless people who litter, just so you know. Another small positive is you never see any children. There is a big problem in Honolulu of homeless families but I am not talking about them. I do not know their stories. I never thought about why Chinatown doubles as drug central but my theory of mutually reinforcing criminality makes sense. Once you know what to look for you see it all around if you go of the beaten tourist track and venture into downtown Honolulu but there are better ways to spend your once in a lifetime vacation. Like Jesus said, the poor you will have with you always. You can see them at home. Here, take a helicopter ride and stay out of Chinatown!