Another homeless family is expected to check into the 2-month-old Family Assessment Center on the edge of the lingering Kakaako homeless encampment by this Thanksgiving Day, when social service workers plan to turn donated food into a meal of canned green beans and ham.
The humble meal for a day of thanks will represent another first for the center, Hawaii’s only shelter focused exclusively on homeless families with children.
The goal of the Family Assessment Center, which the state opened Sept. 28, is to get homeless families off the streets and into permanent housing within 90 days, where they will continue to receive social service help.
The 5,000-square-foot former maintenance shed sits between the University of Hawaii Cancer Center and a dozen or so tents that continue to define the homeless encampment that runs throughout Kakaako Waterfront Park and along the Kakaako shoreline.
Inside, families live in chest-high cubicles that are designed to accommodate a total of 12 families with up to 50 people at a time.
By today, a 15th family was expected to check into the Family Assessment Center.
So far, 56 people have entered the facility. One family has since moved into an apartment in Makiki and another left for a transitional shelter en route to permanent housing, said Adrian Contreras, the Family Assessment Center’s program director.
Four families came from the nearby Kakaako encampment and one family had to leave after the adults were kicked out for fighting outside the fence that encircles the center, Contreras said.
“There’s been some challenges for sure,” Contreras said.
While outreach workers continue to encourage families from the Kakaako encampment to enter the Family Assessment Center, the staff also has to keep uninvited outsiders from entering the chain-link fence that surrounds it.
“They come over to drink, attempt to come inside,” Contreras said.
The Family Assessment Center is not equipped to allow clients to prepare their own food, so the staff plans to cobble together the center’s first Thanksgiving meal as it welcomes its latest family, Contreras said.
They will turn donated canned string beans into a green bean casserole and they’re also making a dish of pork guisantes. They will buy a spiral ham, bread for ham sandwiches, and apple and pumpkin pies from money donated by Catholic Charities Hawaii.
“We’re kind of piecing it all together,” Contreras said Wednesday afternoon. “It feels good to help out.”
He flinched at the use of the term “homeless shelter” to describe the Family Assessment Center.
“We don’t like to be called a shelter,” Contreras said.
Pressed for a more accurate term, he said, “Interim bridge housing, if you have to define it. … There’s a heavy investment in housing placement.”
In between homelessness and finding a permanent home, social service workers from Catholic Charities Hawaii and other organizations help families gather birth certificates and other missing documents they need to get jobs, homes and enroll in school.
They also refer children and adults to services to help deal with their family issues, which often include domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.
Crystal Lewis, 30, and her three daughters — ages 10, 5, and 1 — were the first to check in when the Family Assessment Center opened in September.
On the mainland, Lewis used to walk past homeless people and think to herself, “That would never be me.”
Lewis served in the Coast Guard in Miami from 2005 to 2007 and has a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs voucher that will subsidize a Housing First apartment. But Lewis also knows she needs help dealing with severe anxiety and depression that she calls “a mental illness.”
Over the summer, Lewis said, she fled an abusive relationship in Las Vegas and decided to relocate to Maui, where she planned to buy land with $20,000 in savings and then build a house using a VA loan.
She continued shopping for the right piece of vacant land on Hawaii island but found herself dipping deeper into her savings than originally planned and moved to Oahu to find work.
Instead, she ended up staying in — or visiting — three homeless shelters on Oahu and didn’t feel comfortable in any of them until she ended up at the Family Assessment Center.
Lewis’ daughters have made friends with other kids who live in the center and Lewis feels much more comfortable around other mothers and families.
“My kids sometimes feel sad, angry, scared,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot going on and they need to be around other children. It keeps them in a child place instead of dealing with adult issues. And that’s important.”
But, as a single African-American mother, Lewis said she does not always relate to other families living in the Family Assessment Center who are of Hawaiian, Micronesian or Samoan ancestry.
Overall, though, Lewis said she’s grateful to be able to regroup and try to find a permanent home with the help of the state, social workers, Catholic Charities Hawaii and the Family Assessment Center.
“In Hawaii,” Lewis said, “there’s a lot of help for homeless families.”