Kekoa, a hefty carpenter who stands 6-foot-1, broke his back when a wall form fell on him five years ago.
"Everything started going downhill from there," he recalled softly. "I lost a lot of things, my house, my cars. Most of all, I started to lose my sanity. I went into a deep, deep depression and became homeless."
It still hurts with every step he takes, Kekoa said, but the 32-year-old now gets around with just a cane. And he has a place to call home at Safe Haven, where he is overcoming his depression and moving along the road to recovery.
Safe Haven/Mental Health Kokua reaches some of the most vulnerable and needy of Honolulu residents: people with mental illness who are living on the streets. While the nonprofit has long operated under the radar, it is working to increase its visibility, said CEO Greg Payton.
Bank of Hawaii lent a hand in that effort by sponsoring a benefit concert in April at Aloha Tower to help shine a light on Safe Haven/Mental Health Kokua and encourage the community to contribute to it.
"This organization is doing really amazing work," said Donna Tanoue, president of the Bank of Hawaii Foundation, which supports a wide range of charities. "Mental Health Kokua is not one of those brand names. It’s not as well-known as some homeless service providers. They have a targeted population in terms of the mental illness piece."
Safe Haven, which opened in 1995, has served more than 400 residents over the years. Its staff builds trust with wary and anxious adults on the street, coaxing them to come in for a meal or to do laundry, and eventually move in so they can get help to recover. It houses 25 residents at a time in individual bedrooms upstairs, with shared bathrooms, at its Beretania Street location in Chinatown.
"We are the only facility in the state that is specifically dedicated to addressing the needs of the homeless severely mentally ill population," said Pamela Menter, program director. "We are a one-stop shop because we not only have residential services for 25 people, we have psychiatric services, rehabilitation, case management, nursing (and) substance abuse treatment, and we are staffed 24-7."
More than 80 percent of its clients have mental health problems as well as chemical dependency, Menter said.
The $14,000 raised by the concert will go toward helping residents as they move up and out of the facility, including security deposits, furnishings and other start-up costs. Just as important, the event brought community members together to support those living with mental illness, Payton said, giving them a concrete way to pitch in.
"Everyone talks about the homeless problem, but what can I do as an average person, as a small business or a large business?" Payton asked. "How do you help an adult that is obviously very impaired in Ala Moana Park?"
"This effort (the concert) will help 10 to 15 people move to more permanent housing. We know that with the right support, the right relationships, with the right treatment team, miracles happen. … Recovery is really possible and we see it every day."
Safe Haven has few rules, and no mandates to take medication. Residents are often inspired by each other’s progress.
"What really works is they see their peers getting better," Menter said. "It has a lot to do with being medication-compliant. It also has to do with the trust, which can take months and months for some of them."
Safe Haven has 70 eligible people on its waiting list and they are encouraged to take part in its daily programs while waiting to move in. That’s how Kekoa got started in January, until a bedroom opened up for him in March.
Most residents live at Safe Haven for about a year before they are ready to move on to more permanent housing, either in group homes or living independently. The agency stays in touch with its "graduates" for six months, and is happy to report that 90 percent of them remain in their new homes.
Kekoa, who asked that only his first name be published, is gradually getting back on his feet. He plans to go back to school to train for a less-physical job, in hopes of reclaiming the independent life he once relished.
"Safe Haven has been a blessing," he said. "They help me with my wash, they feed me, they help me with my depression, my PTSD and my suicidal thoughts. I see a psychiatrist, a therapist, a case manager. If you want to talk or just vent, it’s all here. My life is going uphill now."
"Here they give me hope," he added. "They give me something to strive for the next day."
To learn more or donate, visit www.mentalhealthkokua.org/safehaven.html.