November 25, 2008

My Thanksgiving Prayer

Show us your mercy, O Lord;
And grant us your salvation.

Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
Let your people sing with joy.

Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
For only in you can we live in safety.

Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.

Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all.

Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Create in us clean hearts, O God;
And sustain us by your Holy Spirit.

- Book of Common Prayer, 1979

November 20, 2008

Homeless in Paradise: Who's the Bad Guy?

"Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" - Psalm 82:3-4

This week is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which is fitting because I recently finished a class project researching our local homelessness situation here in Hawaii. As you might imagine, the facts are grim: Hawaii has the 4th highest homeless rate in the nation, shelter use is up 19% this year and one-third of those in our shelters are minors. Stereotypes of the "lazy drunk male" simply do not reflect reality since most of these individuals are women and children who look just like anyone else you might see in the supermarket or on the school playground.

Even though over 6,700 people statewide visited a shelter in 2007, researchers estimate that the majority of those experiencing homelessness are "unsheltered", meaning they live outdoors or in places not intended for human habitation such as parks and beaches. According to Connie Mitchell, the director of the Institute for Human Services (IHS), Oahu's largest shelter, the two primary reasons people become homeless in Hawaii are unaffordable housing and domestic conflicts. Rising unemployment rates and the economic downturn are only making things worse.

Everyone agrees that we have a serious problem on our hands, but who's the bad guy in all of this?

Some people blame the police for sweeping the homeless from park to park. But then again, the police are only enforcing "illegal camping" laws that have been enacted by the government. So I guess we could blame the government, but then again, our elected leaders are understandably concerned about the economy which is largely dependent on tourists, who are less likely to spend their money in Hawaii if there are homeless people all over Waikiki and and Ala Moana Beach Park. Maybe we should blame the greedy landlords who keep raising rents only to evict people for being unable to come up with the money. Of course, these landlords are only trying to keep up with property taxes based on the high cost of land, which I suppose you could blame on real estate developers that swoop in from the mainland trying to maximize their profits. Speaking of profits, we can't leave out the health care industry, whose pricey medical bills can quickly bankrupt someone who has no medical insurance. And what about the drug dealers who get people hooked on crystal meth or the prison system that releases people onto the streets with no job skills or a place to live? Speaking of responsibility, it's always a safe bet to point the finger at all of those deadbeat dads that don't pay their child support.

Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to blame homeless people themselves for making bad decisions with their money and relationships. Or we could blame their extended families for not taking them in. Or their parents for not raising them well. Or their teachers for not expecting enough from them. Or the local church for not welcoming them with open arms. Have I left anyone out? Does anyone still think this is an easy problem to solve?

To her credit, Gov. Lingle's administration has developed a fairly detailed 10-year plan to tackle this complex issue, but homelessness in Hawaii will never end until we learn to see the big picture which includes the small part we all can play. Some of us will be advocates while others will be volunteers. Some will give of their resources while others will offer their prayers. Some might even get creative with alternative approaches like the folks at the Waikiki Health Center who came up with the Care-A-Van Homeless Outreach Program in order to meet people wherever they are.

Everyone has a stake in this issue because we all benefit from a solution. It's time to stop looking for the evil villain behind the curtain and take responsibility for our brothers, sisters and children who have no place to call their own.

November 14, 2008

Making Predictions: Why Is It So Much Fun?

"Making predictions has the unintended but unavoidable effect of putting one's reputation on the line. Which, given all of the inevitable uncertainties, is basically a foolish thing to do." -Charley Rosen, writer and NBA analyst

Unlike Mr. Rosen, I will shamelessly admit that I love making predictions. By predictions, I am not referring to fortune cookies, psychic infomercials, creepy astrology or apocalyptic forecasts of gloom and doom found in the pages of supermarket tabloids or forwarded emails. Does anyone remember the Y2K panic of 1999?

I'm also not referring to monetary wagers since I've never been one to put money on poker games, football scores or boxing matches. What I am talking about is the more innocuous speculation of the news and commentary variety: current events, politics, sports, cultural trends, that sort of thing. While it can be very difficult to forecast the future with any consistency, the thrill of crafting and discussing a semi-educated guess provides more than enough fun to outweigh the potential shame of guessing incorrectly. Besides, by the time the results have come in to show how wrong you were, hardly anyone will remember what you said a few months ago unless you're some sort of well-respected talking head with an "expert" opinion (a job I'd love to have but sadly do not).

Without any accountability, making predictions becomes even more exciting. The amount of time between your prediction and the actual event often leaves plenty of room to weasel your way out of your words in order to either 1) "revise" your prediction to accommodate a new set of circumstances, or 2) conveniently predict something new on an entirely different topic, preferably an event that is safely off in the distant future. With such low risks and high rewards, how could anyone resist the urge to pontificate on the juiciest topics ranging from sports to politics to the events leading up the end of the world? As long as no one actually remembers what you said the last time you made a prediction that didn't turn out so well, you can't really go wrong.

Back in October of 2007, barely a year ago, I remember eating dinner with a friend at Bravo's restaurant where we discussed who we thought might win the 2008 election. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani was the clear front-runner at the time and even picked up the endorsement of Pat Robertson a month later. Mitt Romney was having problems explaining his Mormon faith, Mike Huckabee was largely unknown and John McCain had been completely written off by all the analysts because of his terrible polling numbers (single-digits as I recall) and the fact that his campaign was flat broke.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton was so far out in front that it didn't seem anyone could catch her. Barack Obama was drawing huge crowds in the big cities, but was hard to imagine him winning in any red states or rural areas where his race would be a major liability. That night, my friend and I agreed that America was probably not ready for a black president, especially an inexperienced young Senator who was up against the well-oiled prowess of the Clinton political machine. As far as we could tell, it was going to be Rudy vs. Hillary in the general election and as crazy as it now sounds, we predicted Mr. Giuliani to win the presidency since we reckoned that half the country was hopelessly predisposed to hating Mrs. Clinton, or so we thought.

Needless to say, 20/20 hindsight now shows just how wrong we were. McCain made an incredible turnaround, Giuliani flamed out quickly by the end of January after forgetting to campaign outside Florida, Obama squeaked past Clinton in the longest primary season ever and he even managed to flip several of the traditionally conservative states like North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia from red to blue despite all of those working-class white men who were not supposed to vote for a black candidate. These days, anyone can point to Obama's big electoral victory margin and ask, "How could he not have won?" It all seems so obvious now.

So why do I enjoy reminiscing about my off-base predictions like the Rudy vs. Hillary scenario? Why do I have this tendency to gravitate toward controversial issues and unpredictable outcomes? As one of the many who erroneously predicted the Lakers to beat the Celtics in last season's NBA Finals or the Patriots to beat the Giants in Superbowl XLII, why should I even continue with my shoddy guesswork when there's such a high probability that I'll be entirely wrong? Wouldn't it be much safer to avoid making any reckless predictions until the outcome of the event in question has been largely decided? Of course it would, but this would also be dreadfully dull and boring. Heck, I could predict that the 49ers will miss the playoffs for the sixth year in a row or that the Best Actress winner at the next year's Oscars will cry on stage while giving a long-winded acceptance speech, but those things are already a foregone conclusion. I might as well forecast light trade winds and Windward/Mauka showers while I'm at it.

It's much more fun to speculate on things that are really up for grabs. Maybe that's why I enjoy playing fantasy sports, a frivolous virtual guessing game where I can join the ranks of like-minded squares who appreciate the value of meaningless statistics like home runs, touchdowns and rebounds. It's the perfect cocktail of skill and luck. If you guess correctly, by selecting a lineup of overpaid professional athletes that perform well according to a collection of arbitrary statistical categories, you have earned the respect of your peers for supposedly outsmarting the competition. Even if you end up guessing wrong, that's still forgivable because everyone understands how difficult it is to be right 6 months ahead of time.

Now that the 2008 election season has finally ended, pundits, bloggers and news junkies have lost their main source of prediction fodder. What was once a gushing fountain of intrigue and speculation has dried up for the moment, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions for the curious observer. Who will be selected for Obama's key cabinet positions and how long will the honeymoon last? What, if any, will Hillary Clinton's role be in the new administration? Who will be the Republican nominee for president in 2012? When will Bobby Jindal become a household name? At the local level, who will run for the Hawaii governor's seat in 2010 against Duke Aiona? Will Charles Djou become the first Republican to represent Hawaii in Congress in 20 years? Will Cliff Slater and his band of anti-rail protesters try to make another splash in 2009 or will they fade quietly into the sunset? Only time will tell, but that won't stop me from guessing.