Domestic violence was the underlying reason that 3 percent of guests at the Institute for Human Services sought shelter during the past year and was the basis of medical concerns reported by 5 percent of the population.
"We encounter domestic violence on a regular basis. Many of our guests have been victims, and some have been perpetrators," said IHS Clinical Director Jerry Coffee, who said the problem is notoriously underreported. "Most folks come from intergenerational poverty, and that’s a huge indicator of so many other things, including domestic violence and child abuse. To create a critical-thinking adult takes an incredible amount of energy as a parent, and people who are poor are often in crisis, where life is just about surviving."
Coffee said the prevalence of multigenerational living, a product of Hawaii’s cultural mores and the high cost of living here, commonly leads to family tension and sometimes abuse. From July 1, 2013, to June 30, 44 of the 1,419 guests at IHS were seeking shelter from domestic violence and another 84 were dealing with abuse-related physical and mental ailments. Upon checking into the shelter, another three guests reported that they were at risk for domestic violence.
While the problem was generally reported by single women, one man said he was at risk, two men attributed their homelessness to domestic violence, and four said they were suffering from medical conditions related to domestic abuse.
Childhood trauma and abuse at any age is a common shelter theme, said 46-year-old Felice Saldebar, who is still trying to come to grips with memories of growing up in a home where mental and physical abuse allegedly was common.
"At a young age, I remember asking my older siblings, ‘Why are we getting beat up? Why aren’t you doing anything about it?’" Saldebar said, pointing to a burn on her leg that she said came from a hot iron. To cope, Saldebar said she turned to illegal drugs at a young age.
"I watched my family doing drugs at the dinner table. To me, it wasn’t anything bad — it was just what I knew," she said. "Their guilt, their shame is reflected on me."
Seventeen years ago Saldebar sought IHS’ help and succeeded in getting free of drugs and into housing. But a recent relapse caused her to turn to IHS again. "It was hard to come back, but I chose the shelter over my family," said Saldebar, who is working hard to get back on track.
Likewise, Karen Penley, a 28-year-old single mother living at IHS, said childhood trauma had caused her to cycle in and out of homelessness since she was placed in a group home at age 13. Penley said she spent much of her late teens and early adulthood drinking, doing drugs and running away from a life too difficult to endure.
"I’ve suffered from depression my entire life. I was such a young, angry teenager," said Penley, who added that she married at 19 and separated just a year later after her husband — the father of her first child — allegedly abused her.
By 2010, Penley said, she had three children, whom she gave up for adoption because she could not take care of them.
"I was never abusive to my children, but my depression kept getting in the way. After I lost those kids, I was either partying 24/7 or sleeping 24/7. There was no in-between," she said. "I quit paying my bills and became homeless. I was in the Friendship Home for Women and Children in North Carolina when I realized that I was pregnant with my 3-year-old, Zayden."
Penley said she was looking for a fresh start when a family member from Hawaii invited her to move to the islands, far from her troubled past. "I wanted to start over. Instead, I got a bigger nightmare. I was abused the very first night. Eventually I tried to commit suicide."
Penley, who by now had another child, Jacob, was sent to the hospital for treatment and discharged to IHS, although she fled due to fear that they couldn’t keep her safe from her alleged abuser. Penley said Child Protective Services took Zayden and Jacob away while she worked on her recovery, but it wasn’t long before she found out that she was carrying her sixth child, Nakana.
"I spent nearly the whole pregnancy sleeping in a truck," she said. "Three months before I was due, I finally made it to a domestic violence shelter. From there the children and I went to a foster home."
Penley, whose alleged abuser is now on the mainland, later sought shelter from IHS. She said Jacob has gone back to his father on the mainland; however Zayden and 10-month-old Nakana live with her at IHS’ family dorm, where she is taking parenting classes and learning to be more independent.
Penley said she understands why some people, especially those who have been abused, find it easier to live in a shelter far from their own harsh realities.
"It sucks here dealing with all the different people and the different rules. It’s really stressful. But actually, to me it’s a lot easier, too. Here we have a set schedule, and I know what’s going to happen," she said.
Coffee said that structure is by design, as so many shelter guests are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses. Depression affects 28 percent of the general population, Coffee said, but about 80 percent of the homeless population.
"We run a tight ship with rules and policies to make this an environment that is predictable and safe," he said. "We take a lot of crap for it, but this is what most of our guests need."
If guestsare unsatisfied with shelter decisions they can lodge official complaints, Coffee said. Indeed, Penley made national news this summer when she challenged IHS’ request that she cover up or use a private room while nursing.
A national breastfeeding advocacy group eventually weighed in, saying Hawaii’s public-accommodation law does not apply to the IHS shelter. Still, Penley said, her complaint resulted in IHS conducting staff training to give nursing mothers more consideration. The shelter also provided her with an air-conditioned private room so her baby would be more comfortable.
"This was the first time that I stood up for myself," Penley said.
She expects that by fall CPS will give her back full rights to Zayden and Nakana. She hopes to return to North Carolina, where she can work on providing her children with a stable home and the love that she said she always wanted.
"Growing up with so much trauma, I started thinking that maybe I deserved to be hurt and treated like crap," Penley said. "Now I know that I deserve more, and so do my kids — they are my hope and my future. They give me strength."