Starting Monday, the oft-criticized Next Step Shelter in Kakaako begins a new era intended to make it more welcoming to the homeless while emphasizing moving clients into permanent housing within 90 days.
Next Step clients often dot the shoreline of Kakaako Waterfront Park during the day because they have to be out of the shelter by 8:30 every morning, a daily exit that typically creates “a chaotic” time for both clients and staff, said Jason Espero, the new director of homeless services for Waikiki Health, which operates the shelter under a contract with the state.
The shelter’s daily morning checkout and 5:30 p.m. nightly check-in results in “a lot of emotion,” Espero said. “There’s a lot going on.”
Instead, starting Monday, all of the shelter’s clients can remain inside 24/7, where they can keep an eye on their belongings while getting help with job placement and finding permanent housing from the shelter’s staff of nine — all of whom have recently been trained to work as “housing navigators.”
Before, the shelter had only two housing navigators who each carried a caseload of 70 clients.
Now, Espero expects more clients will get assistance from the shelters’ staff, who individually will have an average of 20 clients.
And Espero is tackling the many complaints about the shelter’s “dozens of rules,” which used to be outlined in 13 pages for incoming clients, he said. New clients won’t even be required to have a tuberculosis test anymore, Espero said.
Homeless people who did not like Next Step’s rules were among the more than 300 people who occupied one of the nation’s biggest homeless encampments in Kakaako last summer.
Many of them told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they preferred life on the street to Next Step, where they complained of constantly losing their belongings — even their government-issued identification they needed to find jobs and housing.
The long list of rules at Next Step tended “to make people feel inferior,” said Sheila Beckham, CEO of Waikiki Health. They “tended to be a little bit more punitive.”
Espero hopes relaxing the shelter’s rules means “this facility doesn’t feel like a prison anymore,” he said.
Instead, Espero said, only four basic rules remain: pay rent (which ranges from $60 per month for a single adult to $80 for three cubicles for families), no public disturbances, no destruction, no violence.
But even clients who get into fights won’t be immediately kicked out like before. Instead, the shelter staff has been instructed to work with the battling parties to smooth things over, Espero said.
He hopes the change in philosophy promotes a better relationship between homeless clients and shelter staff to create “an atmosphere of trust” that will lead to more clients finding jobs and permanent housing.
“We’re changing the culture,” said Espero, a son of state Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). “We’re going to play a big impact in moving (clients) into housing.”
Other rule changes include extending the nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. — and it could go to midnight.
“We want to treat them like adults, like a reasonable person,” Espero said.
Next Step was originally intended to be a temporary, overnight shelter when it opened in 2006 under the administration of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who was dealing with her own homeless crisis.
While clients had to be out during each weekday, they were allowed to stay inside on weekends. When clients don’t have to move out each morning and back in each night, “it’s very mellow,” Espero said.
Without money to hire more people, Espero has adjusted employees’ work hours to have the shelter staffed around the clock. At the same time, construction was underway on Friday to make the shelter’s staff more visible to clients to encourage more interaction.
Next Step and Waikiki Health are also emphasizing their litany of services to clients, which include transporting them to Waikiki Health’s clinics for treatment; providing tuition and transportation to Kapiolani Community College, where six clients just graduated from KCC’s culinary program on Friday; and taking in newly released convicts, who are often let out of prison without identification that they need to get both jobs and housing.
“We’re breaking down the barriers,” Espero said.
Beckham said that the changes were well underway before the state announced to the Star-Advertiser last week that its stalled plans to remake a Kakaako maintenance shed into Oahu’s newest homeless shelter for families were back on track. The site is expected to open in late September.
The state’s new Family Assessment Center is on the Diamond Head side of the University of Hawaii’s medical school, which sits between Next Step and the Family Assessment Center.
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said the two shelters will “complement each other.”
Espero said clients from the Family Assessment Center likely will be able to use Next Step’s laundry services, if they want.
Next Step clients can stay in the shelter as long as two years, but the goal is to get them into permanent housing within 90 days.
Even though clients will now be allowed to stay indoors 24/7, Espero hopes that a constant turnover of clients into permanent housing will mean cubicles will be regularly cleaned for incoming clients to reduce hygiene and cleanliness issues.
The shelter has 159 cubicles for adults and families. Last week it was over capacity by about a dozen people, Espero said.
On Friday, when Espero and Beckham outlined the changes underway for Next Step, the shelter was empty during the day for the last time and none of the clients were around.
But starting Monday, Espero said, life inside Next Step “is going to be a lot easier.”