It broke Dolly Ann Tapaoan’s heart to hear her young son ask, “Mom, how come we cannot live with Dad?”
That was three years ago, right after her husband fell behind on the rent and they lost their house. He found himself a place to camp in a friend’s garage, but left Tapaoan and her son to fend for themselves. She and her son ended up living on the beach or emergency shelters, she said.
Eventually they qualified for a small, state-subsidized apartment in Kaneohe, where they’ve been living the past two years. Tapaoan, 54, is a part-time saleswoman and hopes to increase her hours soon. Celebrating Christmas last year was done with minimal fanfare, but, she said, “It was OK. He no ask for so much, my boy.”
The Adopt A Family program, run by Helping Hands Hawai‘i, can provide a little something extra at Christmas for families struggling to get by. Through the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s annual Good Neighbor Fund, readers can “adopt” a family or contribute to the general fund, which will enable Helping Hands to assist some 600 households this year. In addition to basic necessities, the most requested items are clothing and shoes, housewares and popular toys.
Tapaoan was married for 30 years, but her husband’s abandonment was the last straw in a troubled relationship. Through Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i, she obtained a divorce and had to fight to get child support. In the meantime, “I couldn’t get into a shelter till an authority would say that I was truly homeless!” She laughed. “I thought that was crazy!”
She and her son, whom she calls “my bebbe (baby),” at first lived out of their truck at Ewa Beach. “The truck would be home,” she said. Tapaoan’s nephew would “put up fishing poles (in the sand) so the police wouldn’t chase us off, because you can’t be there unless you’re fishing.” While her son went to school, she would go to work for a cleaning company.
Another relative would invite them to use their shower or washing machine. “Sometimes, it was OK, but I needed to leave because it felt funny kine, like I’m a burden,” Tapaoan said.
Her ex-husband did pay child support for a year when the divorce was finalized, but then he died in 2014. As his survivors, they are able to collect Social Security. Still, it’s been hard to pay all the bills on a limited income.
When they were homeless, she could barely pay the $250-a-month fee to store her furniture and possessions. Her sister had to lend her the money to get their things out of storage once they got into their apartment. After living on the beach and different emergency shelters, it was a relief to finally have a place to call home.
When her son first walked into the apartment, “He was happy. He was happy,” Tapaoan said.
Now that things have settled down, “My concern is his education,” she said. Tapaoan is gratified her son was accepted this fall on scholarship to Kamehameha Schools, and is making new friends. He was able to get a lightly used school uniform for a nominal fee, but he needs a pair of shoes with white soles for physical education so they don’t scuff the gymnasium floor, she said. Some new clothes would help because he’s outgrown his old wardrobe — “He sprouted up so fast. He’s just as tall as I am.”
For Christmas, “I wouldn’t mind going out to dinner. A restaurant where you can sit and just talk story,” Tapaoan said, mentioning Denny’s Restaurant.
“Nothing fancy,” she said. “I don’t think I would know how to act in a fancy restaurant, what fork to use.”