Friday, December 05, 2014


Councilman Stanley Chang admits to criminalizing homeless in Honolulu by defining Sand Island as a Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau

by Larry Geller

No doubt inadvertently, Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang classified those living on the streets of Honolulu as criminals by referring to the proposed Sand Island tented camp as a Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau.

At a panel presentation last night on the subject of Honolulu’s sit-lie ban at the UH law school, Chang stated that the City Council was (from my notes):

…creating a safe zone, a Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, … based on the Hawaiian concept of a city of refuge…

A Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, of course, was not a place for people to go who had no other place to live. From a tourist description of the now restored historical site on the Big Island:

Puuhonua o Honaunau, or the Place of Refuge, gained infamy as the so-called safe haven for criminals in ancient Hawaii

Stealing a Hawaiian term for a sacred place seems to be culturally insensitive.

The pu'uhonua offered more than physical protection. It was a sanctuary of supernatural power. At each pu'uhonua the ruling chief built a heiau (temple) in his own name. Ki'i saw to the sacredness of the land. The pu'uhonua's greatest power was that of unquestioned forgiving. Here was no punishment for crimes and sin, here ruled no justice or revenge. No matter what the crime might have been, the pu'uhonua offered refuge. A person ready to leave, started out clean.

Going to Chang’s tent city will, of course, not absolve anyone served with a bench warrant under the sit-lie ordinances he championed. Such bad things go on one’s “permanent record,” as our public school teachers were fond of admonishing us. They would make it more difficult to find jobs or housing in the future for those charged.

Whether the proposed Sand Island location is called an internment camp, an evacuation camp, a detention camp, or just a homeless camp or tent city, is perhaps a matter of personal bias and reaction to the negative aspects of the city’s approach to deal with its long neglect of growing homelessness and poverty on Oahu. But re-naming it as a pu'uhonua seems to me, as a non-Hawaiian, as something I wouldn’t want to support in any way.

And yes, perhaps it is a Freudian slip. If Chang appropriates that term, then he is also branding the inhabitants of the camp as criminals, ‘cause that’s what the term implies. And that is how the City Council is treating the houseless citizens of Honolulu.


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