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Parents raise tots in tents rather than go to shelters

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Morgan Leialoha, 6, lives with her mother, Erica, in a tent on a vacant lot in Kakaako. Her mother said she’s worried about where she’ll go next, but isn’t interested in moving into a shelter.
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TJ Selet, 5, mugged for the camera at the Next Step Shelter as his mother, Tenes, held his sister Faith, 1, in the background. Also pictured is his sister Roxasarine, 4, on her scooter. Tenes and her husband, Jackson, have been living in the shelter with their three children for almost three months.
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Morgan Leialoha, 6, camped out in Kakaako last week with her mother, Erica, who says shelters are too crowded: “At least I know out here she has her own bed, her own stuff,” she said.

Homeless sweeps of beach parks and sidewalks are squeezing families into smaller and more dangerous streets and remote areas, creating growing concern about the welfare of children who have no place to call home.

Of greatest concern to homeless advocates is the overall health of Hawaii’s unsheltered children, especially those in families living increasingly farther away from running water, electricity or transportation lines.

The cleanup of a homeless encampment last month at Keaau Beach Park, where more than 200 homeless people — including 70 children — were living during its peak in October, spurred many to move into shelters but drove others to relocate to more secluded, undeveloped areas of the Wai­anae Coast farther from the highway, advocates say.

After several cleanups in Kakaako, a few families moved into shelters but some scattered to other areas, including a small vacant lot near the Children’s Discovery Center.

Over the past five years, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars to build shelters and move homeless families off beaches and out of parks. But hundreds remain unsheltered statewide — and their ranks included almost 700 children over the course of the past fiscal year, more than half of whom were 5 or younger, statistics compiled by the University of Hawaii show.

Some warn that those numbers could grow, after dipping in recent years, as advocates see an increase in homeless families at a time when money for more services is drying up.

Marc Alexander, the governor’s homeless czar, said the state’s 2011 “point-in-time” count, conducted on one night in January, is already showing more sheltered and unsheltered homeless families statewide — a product, he suspects, of a longtime dearth of affordable housing and a worsening economy.

The final count is expected to be released as early as this month.

Alexander said homeless children, without a doubt, are a top priority for service providers — and one of the biggest concerns for the state.

The concern among some advocates has led several to call the police or state Child Protective Services in recent months to report cases of neglect after seeing unsheltered children playing near busy streets unsupervised, not going to school regularly or appearing as though they have poor hygiene.

“For me, the same criteria applies (whether) you’re sheltered or unsheltered: are you taking care of your children?” said Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikiki Health Center, which handles intake services for the state’s Next Step shelter in Kakaako and provides outreach to homeless islandwide.

But Alexander said it is important for onlookers to “check” their emotions when it comes to making assumptions about homeless families. “We can’t simply take children away from people because we don’t like their lifestyle,” Alexander said. “If the parents are being responsible and taking advantage of resources, what are we to do? All we can do is keep reaching out to them.”

In a vacant asphalt lot in Kakaako last week, Erica Leialoha was camping out with her 6-year-old daughter, Morgan. Their tent butted up against a fence and their belongings were under a tarpaulin to keep dry.

Leialoha, 31, said the family moved several times last month and planned to relocate again after being warned by police about pitching tents in the area.

Sitting in her tent, the door flaps wrapped around her legs like a blanket, Leialoha said she recently learned she was pregnant and so was trying hard to get off the streets, especially because of all the moving. But she is not interested in moving into a shelter.

Shelters, Leialoha said, are too crowded. And she’s scared about bringing her daughter into one.

“At least I know out here she has her own bed, her own stuff,” Leialoha said. “My daughter goes to school. If we don’t have (something she needs), I always find a way to get it.”

In the wake of the recent sweeps, though, other homeless families have chosen to move into shelters after long periods on the streets and because of the added frustration and instability of regular moving.

Last week, Vito Leha was taking down his tent, situated next to the Leialohas’ camping area.

After four years on the streets, Leha, his wife and three children, ages 15, 8 and 3, were moving into the state’s Next Step shelter.

Leha said he decided to seek shelter because he did not want to have to move his children again. “We can’t stay in one place,” he said, referring to the sweeps, adding that he does believe he can care for his children on the streets.

Alexander, the governor’s homeless coordinator, said he’s hopeful that recent cleanup projects at Keaau Beach Park and in Kakaako will spur more families to seek shelter.

Several did just before and directly after the cleanups. At least four families in Kakaako moved into the state’s Next Step shelter, and several more families in Wai­anae moved off the streets.

Others, though, moved elsewhere: Of the 200 who had set up camp at Keaau Beach Park, as many as a third moved to a nearby stretch of city-owned coastline known as “The Bush.” Others moved to undeveloped valleys.

“They’re going up into the mountains,” said Sophina Placencia, executive director of Waianae Community Outreach. “It may not be the best place for keiki.”

Service providers stress that it is their duty to report child neglect immediately, but also say homelessness alone does not mean a child isn’t cared for.

The situation gets murky for families moving into more remote or secluded areas, advocates say. Those moves, into places that sometimes appear uninhabitable, raise questions about how a child can get proper hygiene living there, get access to nutritious food or make it to school, much less finish homework.

“It’s definitely not our place to say that you’re unfit because you cannot afford a house,” Placencia said. “But where do you draw the line?”

Jason Espero, shelter coordinator and outreach worker with the Waikiki Health Center, said he often grows concerned about unsheltered homeless children — and has called police to report suspected child endangerment cases. But, he said, he’s never had a case in which a homeless child was taken from parents by CPS workers.

“Sometimes, I noticed that the parents weren’t always watching the kids. They would be wandering by themselves,” he said. “Sometimes they would go to school dirty. Their only access to a shower is at the park.”

CPS workers go out regularly to offer voluntary services to families, while also responding to “concern calls” from police, service providers and residents. Those calls are screened to determine the severity of a child’s risk and whether an immediate response is needed, officials said.

In fiscal year 2010, which ended June 30, CPS workers investigated concern calls involving 6,575 children with “housing problems,” most of whom were homeless. Of those, child endangerment cases were initiated in 83 cases.

That was down slightly from the previous year, when 112 cases were opened. From July to December 2010, 42 cases of child endangerment involving homeless children were initiated.

John Walters, program development administrator for state Child Protective Services, said it “isn’t our policy to penalize people for being homeless.”

“There are people who are working homeless who are able to provide safe homes for their children,” he said, adding, “We encourage people to get into stable housing.”

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