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Outreach staffers face daunting odds, but keep focus on next success story

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    Michael Dicks, a 61-year-old homeless man, expresses his frustration with Oahu’s homeless problem to Justin Phillips, an outreach specialist at the Institute for Human Services, which runs the state’s largest emergency homeless shelter.
    "I’m much better now ... but you know that we’ve got a big crisis when someone can go from being a social worker to being on the streets,” said Noreen Taylor, a 60-year-old former state social worker who became homeless in 2011 after losing her job, the result of budget cuts in 2009.

Michael Dicks, 61, lies slumped along a stretch of rock wall, seemingly oblivious to the police officers and emergency medical technicians who are working with another homeless man nearby at the River Street end of Aala Park.

But a drunken Dicks rises to attention when he spots Justin Phillips, an outreach specialist at the Institute for Human Services, which runs the state’s largest emergency homeless shelter in Iwilei.

"Justin! Hey man, come on over here," Dicks yells out, offering the outreach worker a fist-bump greeting. "I’m gonna be knocking on your door pretty soon."

Normally, that’s good news for Phillips, who spends most of his work hours trying to persuade homeless people to move from the streets to an IHS shelter, where they can begin shoring themselves up to live in transitional or permanent housing.

But Dicks, who cycled through shelters and programs in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006, may only be shopping for his next soft landing in case Next Step shelter in Kakaako kicks him out for refusing to participate in Po‘ailani, a program that serves individuals suffering from psychiatric and substance disorders.

Dicks is just one example of the many homeless individuals whom IHS outreach workers encounter every week, demonstrating why the communal shelter model doesn’t work for everyone and why Hawaii’s numbers of unsheltered homeless continue to climb.

According to the Hawaii 2014 Point in Time Count, which measured Hawaii homelessness on a particular day in January, the state’s unsheltered homeless population rose 11.5 percent from 1,465 individuals in 2013 to this year’s 1,633, accounting for nearly 35 percent of all the homeless surveyed.


A sampling of rules for shelter residents:

» By the fifth of every month, single guests will pay the equivalent of $3 a day and families will pay the equivalent of $4 a day. These fees will teach you to pay rent and budget.

» Cooperation in self-betterment programs and volunteering is rewarded in fee discounts and waivers.

» If you graduate from the garden program, which teaches agriculture skills, you will earn a $125 stipend.

» You are required to open a savings account and save 70 percent of your monthly income.

» Parking is not provided for vehicles, though some street parking is available.

» Sleeping outside of the shelter must be approved by the shelter manager or your case worker. You may not abandon your bed for more than two nights in a row.

» Weekly meetings with caseworkers are encouraged.

» Weapons, knives and guns are banned.

» Illicit drugs are forbidden.

» You have a right to a safe, secure and clean environment.

» Don’t cut or color your hair at the shelter.

» You are expected to bathe regularly and practice good personal hygiene.

» Dress appropriately for mixed company.

» Don’t take food in the dorm and don’t remove it from the dining area.

» Random searches are permitted. If you refuse, you will be suspended for six months.

» Smoking and the use of tobacco products including betel nuts are prohibited.

» If you appear intoxicated, you will be asked to take a breathalyzer or UA test. If you refuse, you will be asked to leave the shelter for at least 24 hours.

» Shelter phone use is limited to three minutes.

» Use the showers at your scheduled time.

» If you miss the 9 p.m. curfew, you will be locked out.

» You must be off your bunk by 6:15 a.m. and the doors are locked at 6:45 a.m.

» Sleeping in your car is not permitted.

» Loitering around area businesses is not permitted.

» Keep your belongings locked in your assigned locker.

» Sexual activity, gambling and theft are not permitted.

» Domestic violence, abuse or neglect of children is not allowed.

» Only a doctor or case manager may issue rest passes that allow you to stay in the dorms for longer periods.

The number of Hawaii’s chronically homeless — those with a disabling condition who have been homeless for at least a year or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years — rose 32.5 percent between 2007 and 2013.

From 2012 to 2013 alone, chronic homelessness in Hawaii rose 13.3 percent.

In the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Hawaii had the dubious distinction of being second only to California for the percentage of homeless people living outside of shelters.

And, when it came to Hawaii’s chronically homeless, as many as 76.9 percent were unsheltered, making the state the nation’s fifth worst for this phenomenom, behind California, Mississipi, Florida and Louisiana.

While the statistics are daunting, Phillips and other IHS outreach workers, who had nearly 800 street encounters in urban Hono­lulu and on the North Shore last year, aren’t willing to give up, even when their efforts seem futile.

Case in point: Phillips is initially rebuffed when he stops on Hotel Street to connect with a mentally ill homeless woman, whose fingernails are filled with feces and whose pants have disintegrated at her crotch. He celebrates a minor victory when she allows him to buy her a new pair of pants, water and a bag of potato chips. Phillips refuses to be discouraged when his offer of further assistance prompts a four-letter tirade.

"A lot of people are like this girl here. She doesn’t want help, she doesn’t want nothing. She wants to be what she wants to be. But we keep trying," said Phillips, who was homeless himself in the 1990s and went to prison before finding his calling in helping others. "We’ve had some really great success stories. They keep us going."

Phillips and others realize that problems such as mental illness, antisocial disorders, substance abuse and fear of living in a communal shelter can create barriers. But the reality is that even if every homeless person were receptive to getting help and all programs were open to them, there still wouldn’t be enough affordable housing for everyone, especially the most chronically homeless.

Affordable housing stock for the homeless is expected to turn over more quickly with more focus on so-called rapid rehousing for those who just need a leg up, and on Housing First, which provides affordable rentals with services to the most vulnerable homeless, who typically have problems that prevent them from working or caring for themselves.

"Most chronically homeless people are not people that can negotiate a shelter — the noise, the people. These are the ones that typically don’t leave the streets. They aren’t connected to any mainstream services except for outreach," said Joy Rucker, former director of community services at Waikiki Health. "Sometimes, these individuals have burned bridges at every shelter on the island. They owe monthly fees. They have broken rules. Some are unable to seek help or get into a shelter because of their mindset and their behavior."

Between October and May, Rucker said, the state was able to house 224 chronically homeless people through Housing First. However, 21 of them were evicted for noncompliance with rules.

"That’s not a true Housing First model," Rucker said. "So this year with this funding stream there are no program requirements. You don’t have to be clean and sober. You don’t have to go into shelter or transitional housing or prove how ready that you are for housing. This year is very different and we are very hopeful."

But success still comes down to the Herculean task of connecting with the most hard-to-serve individuals.

Instead of waiting for homeless individuals to come to IHS, members of an intensive urban outreach team go directly to them, either on the streets or in outreach centers, where they can build relationships, help solve medical issues, and provide access to food, shelter, housing and possibly employment.

They also advocate for police sweeps and other forms of so-called compassionate disruption, which they say can help compel homeless individuals to break unhealthy cycles.

And they are starting to use new tools, such as the Assisted Community Treatment Law, which took effect in January, allowing authorities to get a court order urging a mentally ill person to take his or her medication.

But the enforcement effort has drawn substantial criticism from some homeless advocates and civil libertarians, who say "compassionate disruption" efforts criminalize homelessness, further victimize the downtrodden, and could potentially fill already-crowded prisons with nonviolent offenders.

IHS’ outreach centers also are focused on preparing people to go from the streets into housing, possibly bypassing the emergency and transitional shelter systems. Legal aid and a food and clothing bank are incentives to draw people to the center, where outreach workers are waiting to talk about making better housing choices.

"Some individuals are ready for a change, while some I’m still working on two years later," said Tyran Terada, an IHS outreach specialist, who spends most of his time at IHS’ North Shore Outreach Center, a one-stop help concept that recently expanded to Wahiawa and is expected to move into Waikiki. "Most of the people that we see at our Outreach Centers wouldn’t come to IHS for help."

That was certainly true of 60-year-old Noreen Taylor, who became homeless in 2011 after she was unable to recover from losing her job as a state social worker following the 2009 budget cuts.

"I never thought this would happen to me," Taylor said. "I had some savings and good credit and I figured that I could go the North Shore beaches, where I used to go with my family for fun as a child. My plan was to camp and get on my feet. But it proved impossible. I was barely surviving. I couldn’t keep clean enough or appropriately dressed enough to find work and I had some health issues."

Taylor said it didn’t take long for her to become physically exhausted and severely depressed.

"I was at a crisis point. I couldn’t even think well enough to set my own tent up," she said. "The truth is that I would have died out there if I hadn’t found some help. The irony is that I was too ashamed to tell my former co-workers. But since I’ve been homeless, I know that I’m not alone. One of my case workers has other social workers and speech therapists on her load."

Terada said people fall into homelessness for many reasons and there are just as many explanations for why they don’t seek or take the help that they need.

"A lot of people have lost hope," he said. "Some are living rough and don’t know what services that they qualify for, and others don’t have the motivation because they are already so defeated. Our outreach centers can be a lot less intimidating for these individuals, especially if they aren’t used to an urban setting."

As a former social worker, Taylor knew about IHS’ shelters in Iwilei and their programs, but said that she, like others in her rural North Shore community, was too terrified to go there.

Word of mouth finally brought her to IHS’ North Shore Outreach Center, which within two months was able to place her in a subsidized apartment in a low-income section of Wahiawa.

"They saved my life, but it hasn’t been easy for them or for me," said Taylor, who uses some of her welfare and disability payments to pay rent. "The first night in my apartment, I went back to the beach. I couldn’t handle all the noise. My neighbors and their kids were screaming and there were chickens banging around in cages."

A night away from the apartment brought enough clarity for Taylor to try getting off the streets again.

"After a year on the beach, it took me four or five months to transition back to a more normal way of living. I’m much better now … but you know that we’ve got a big crisis when someone can go from being a social worker to being on the streets. There’s an old saying that social work is the place where the rubber meets the road. We’re there."



Most homeless people are making their way to an IHN shelter from Oahu’s streets, buildings, beaches and parks since the city began its extensive sweeps.

Street or building 20.85%
Beach or park 16.96%
Living in a family’s room or house 10.47%
Medical facility/hospital 9.26%
Living in a friend’s room or house 7.61%
Prison 6.23%
Rental housing (room, apartment or house) 5.28%
Car or vehicle 5.02%

Source: IHS, data from July 2013 to June 18, 2014



Homelessness on Oahu has been steadily rising, with unsheltered homelessness showing the largest increases.

  2009 2014 %Change
Total 3,638 4,712 +29.5%
  2009 2014 %Change
Unsheltered 1,193 1,633 +36.9%
  2009 2014 %Change
Sheltered 2,445 3,079 +25.9%

Unshelted homelessness rose and sheltered homelessness declined slightly from 2013 to 2014:

  2013 2014 %Change
Sheltered 3,091 3,079 -.39%
Unsheltered 1,465 1,633 +11.47%

Fewer chronically homeless are going to the shelters:

  2013 2014 %Change
Chronic sheltered 187 99 -47.05%
Chronic unsheltered 505 558 +10.49%

Source: 2014 Point-in-Time Count for Oahu

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