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Hawaii News

Shedding light on pain, challenge of homelessness

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Momi Lopes plays with her 9-month-old son, Kane, at the Institute for Human Services family dorm in Iwilei. Read about her story in Day 2 of our series.
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Karen Penley, 28, takes advantage of a rest pass to snuggle with her sons, 3-year-old Zayden, and baby Nakana, 10 months, at the Institute for Human Services. Penley said morning rest passes, which may be obtained only with special permission, allow her to catch up on the sleep that she misses at night as a result of crowded shelter conditions. Originally from North Carolina, Penley said domestic violence caused her to seek shelter at IHS.

Shelters in Hawaii often have room for more residents, but persuading the chronically homeless to take advantage of those openings can be a tough sell. Mainlanders, meanwhile, are filling more shelter beds as some become overwhelmed by Hawaii’s high costs and others use shelters as their go-to housing option. "It’s mind-boggling," says one shelter executive. "We aren’t meant to be someone’s primary plan."

Stories by Allison Schaefers

Photography by Krystle Marcellus

On any given night in Hawaii, as many as 6,918 individuals are homeless with around 3,135, or 45 percent, of them sleeping on streets and sidewalks or beaches and parks, or squatting in buildings.

According to 2014 statistics from the Statewide Homeless Point-in-Time Count, homelessness is growing and the percentage of those who live unsheltered is rising.


SUNDAY, SEPT. 7, 2014 Emergency homeless shelters often have beds available, but persuading the chronically homeless to take advantage of those openings can be a tough sell. Substance abuse, mental illness, aversion to shelter rules and fear of bedbugs are just a few of the many reasons cited for this apprehension. And while life inside a shelter is not without challenges (including bedbugs and lots of rules), those who do use them can find a respite from life on the street and the possibility of a new start.

MONDAY, SEPT. 8, 2014 One family’s journey from homelessness to the Institute for Human Services emergency shelter to more-permanent housing illustrates the many struggles that people on the street face. The Lopes family started a new chapter of their lives in Weinberg Village in Waimanalo this summer, but not before overcoming addiction, depression, unemployment and family separation. "My hope is that we will be able to take this experience and start over," says 18-year-old Ka’uhane Lopes.

TUESDAY, SEPT. 9, 2014 The cycle of homelessness can be hard to break. Almost 10 percent of homeless families who stayed in emergency shelters and 25 percent of individuals returned less than a year after getting permanent housing, according to the 2013 Homeless Services Utilization Report. Advocates say more affordable-housing units, not more shelter space, is what Hawaii needs to significantly reduce homelessness.

On Oahu, the island with the highest concentration of homelessness, city sweeps and police crackdowns move the unsheltered from one end of the island to another. The push has started to fill emergency shelters including the Institute for Human Services in Iwilei and Waikiki Health’s Next Step Shelter in Kakaako.

While new initiatives in Hawaii have focused on getting the most vulnerable homeless people into permanent housing, emergency shelters still provide a key first step toward getting many of Hawaii’s homeless into better conditions.

But many unsheltered homeless individuals have been telling Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporters for years that they don’t want to go to shelters because of the rules, or fear of bedbugs, or the difficulty of living with hundreds of strangers, among other reasons.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser Waikiki bureau chief Allison Schaefers and photographer Krystle Marcellus wanted to go beyond the stereotypes and preconceived notions about who the homeless are and get an insider’s look at life in a homeless shelter. They spent weeks this summer researching, interviewing and documenting the stories of homeless people in the hardest-hit unsheltered areas of Oahu. And they spent three days and two nights at IHS, the state’s largest emergency homeless shelter.

Starting inside this edition, the Star-Advertiser kicks off a three-day series based on what Schaefers and Marcellus observed and discovered.

The series provides an intimate portrait of homeless people on the streets and inside shelters, and of those who try to help them. And it illustrates a state in transition as policymakers look to new approaches to take the most vulnerable homeless from the streets and shelters to permanent housing.

Watch the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Allison Schaefers and Krystle Marcellus discuss this series on Hawaii News Now’s "Sunrise" at 7:40 a.m. Monday on KGMB.

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