Momi Lopes sat at a picnic table outside of her new home at Weinberg Village in Waimanalo playing with her 9-month-old son, Kane, who until this day had never known life outside of a homeless shelter.
Kane’s legs aren’t nearly strong enough to support him yet, but when 41-year-old Momi held him up, he pushed against the hard surface, slowly moving his chubby legs forward.
"We came to the shelter five days before Kane was born. It’s been really hard. But at least he gets to take his first steps in a house," said Momi as she brushed away tears of joy.
It’s not only the littlest member of the Lopes family who has struggled with first steps. The family’s placement in the Weinberg transitional shelter this summer also has given five of Kane’s eight siblings and his parents a chance to embark on their own new journey. Depression, addiction and joblessness temporarily cost Momi and her husband, Charles, custody of their younger children.
Shelter programs at the Institute for Human Services in Iwilei helped reunite the family, giving them hope and teaching them that going the distance often begins with a series of well-placed baby steps.
While as many as 95 families sought shelter at IHS between July 2013 and mid-June, the Lopes family stands out for having overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, many of them self-inflicted. Indeed, 18 of the families at the shelter in that same period never made it into transitional housing.
Although statistics from the 2014 Homeless Point in Time Count show that most homeless families are willing to seek assistance from shelters, the number of individual family members who went to Oahu shelters actually dropped 1 percent from 2013. At the same time, the number of family members on the streets rose by 10.5 percent. Although some 2,168 family members sought shelter in 2014, as many as 188 remained unsheltered.
"This family did everything that they needed to do to get into housing," said David Lunceford, an associate family case manager who worked with the family. "They followed all of our recommendations, and while they were here they saved more than $4,000. They were ready before we were able to find a home for them."
The couple, who met in the sixth grade and married out of high school, say love for their children inspired them to do better.
They also worked to end Charles’ addiction to crystal methamphetamine.
For many years of their marriage, Momi helped cover for Charles, who was a mostly functional addict with more than one job. The kids kept coming, but the family managed to make ends meet by relying on good wages from Charles’ primary job as a heavy equipment operator. When times were tight, they depended on the generosity of their families to provide housing and subsidize rents. But drugs eventually strained those relationships, forcing the family to face the personal and monetary issues that kept them from more stable housing.
IHS Clinical Director Jerry Coffee said one of the challenges confronting many Hawaii families who come to the shelter is learning to budget appropriately when family support ends.
"We actually see families who are living in Hawaii who earn a living wage and could afford housing, but they’ve fallen prey to the consumerism that is afforded them by the fact that they are living with families. We’ve seen couples who didn’t have to pay for rent or utilities or food. It’s challenging when they come to us with two $700 luxury car payments, fancy laptops and gold chains," he said. "They don’t always like it when we tell them that our goal is to help make them self-sufficient."
While the Lopeses have a high-mileage SUV and no high-ticket belongings, they were still challenged with trying to manage their money once family support was cut.
Charles said his addiction intensified in 1998 after the death of their week-old child, Kaleo, to sudden infant death syndrome. "There were years that I didn’t do drugs, but after Kaleo died they became my escape. I worked two jobs to pay for them," Charles said. "Momi kept the money from the first job, but drugs took everything else that I made."
The family finally went under two years ago when Charles lost his primary job and he fell even deeper into addiction. "Unemployment ran out and we didn’t have anything — not even welfare. It got really bad. I took what little we had for drugs," he said.
Momi said she also turned to crystal meth to deal with the death of her child and the continued loss of her husband to drugs and depression. "It seemed like we were slipping away from each other. I did it to have a connection to him," she said.
In 2013 the younger kids found drug paraphernalia in the home where the family was staying, and they reported it to Momi’s parents, who asked Child Protective Services to intervene. Ka‘uhane, 18, went to live at a friend’s home, and CPS placed the youngest children — Charlie, 6; Ka‘i‘ama, 9; Kau‘ila, 10; and Chalei, 13 — with Momi’s parents. (The couple’s other two children are adults.)
Around the same time, Momi discovered she was pregnant with Kane. She said she quit doing drugs and told Charles that he should, too.
"When CPS told me just my being clean was not enough to keep the baby, I had to get all my strength together. I packed up his stuff and changed the locks. I wasn’t going to not be with my babies — that wasn’t an option."
Charles said it only took a day of hanging out with his friends to realize how much he would miss his family.
"I realized that there was nothing for me. I didn’t belong in that world. I wanted my kids. I told her that I would be willing to do whatever we needed to do to get them back," said Charles, who went through Hina Mauka’s intensive four-month treatment program and got sober.
The couple eventually found themselves living in a tent in Charles’ parents’ backyard. They were forced to seek space at IHS when CPS told them that their tent would not be approved as a fit environment for the soon-to-be-born Kane.
"I remember we were down to a week before the baby was due to be born, and CPS said if we didn’t find suitable housing or a shelter that they were going to take him. I would cry, cry, cry," Momi said. "Luckily, space opened up on Halloween."
The couple thrived at the shelter, where Charles received help finding a job at the airport. Eventually the couple progressed enough to reunite with all their children.
"We didn’t want them to live in the shelter, but they persuaded us that it would be better for the family to be together," Momi said.
IHS assigned the family three bunks to accommodate the other children, who moved into the shelter in early February. CPS eventually terminated its case against the couple and awarded them full custody of their young children.
Ka‘uhane said living in a shelter was hard, but the close-knit family adjusted to it more easily than they had to living apart.
"It’s kind of like a gigantic camping trip," said the Castle High School senior, who spent most shelter nights curled up against his brothers. His mother slept in the neighboring bunk with his sisters. Charles and baby Kane typically took the remaining bunk.
The family made friends with others at the shelter and came to consider their assigned space home. They found they could overlook the plethora of rules, locked cabinets, communal bathrooms, lack of privacy, institutional food, bedbugs and the odd mix of neighbors because they had each other.
"Without IHS we wouldn’t have been able to come back together," Ka‘uhane said. "It’s really hard not to be able to wake up next to your siblings or talk to your mom and dad. The rest of the kids are doing a lot better since we’ve all come together."
Coffee said families typically do better at the shelter than singles because they can rely on each other. Couples with children also have more of an impetus to get jobs so that they can support their families and move into stable housing sooner. According to IHS, most of the adults who live in the shelter earn an average of $942 a month from working food service, security, construction, janitorial, sales and customer service jobs.
"As many as 80 percent of our families have at least one member working because they depend on each other," Coffee said.
Certainly, facing obstacles together has made the Lopes family stronger, said IHS Children’s Coordinator Angela Dumais, who helped the younger Lopes children learn to express themselves and adjust to shelter living.
"Chalei ended the school year with a 3.8 grade point average and was in Academic All-Stars. … Now she’s got this big dream to go to Brigham Young University. I see her coming back to a place like this and teaching or volunteering," Dumais said. "I’m so proud of her."
The other young Lopes children also have made progress, she said. "I see good things for their future because I know that they want it," Dumais said.
Momi is confident that the supportive environment of the Weinberg Village will help the family succeed and find permanent housing. "We’ll do it … one step at a time," she said. "It’s kind of like we are back to what we were, only better because now we’ve been there and gotten through it and we aren’t going through it again."
Occupancy at the three Institute for Human Services shelters in Iwilei fluctuates with fewer bed spaces available during emergency weather or at the end of the month when impoverished people typically fall short on funds. Here is a snapshot of IHS’ occupancy during the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s three-day visit in June:
171 Single men
83 Single women
25 Families: 57 adults and 56 children
*Breakdown might not add up because visitors can belong to more than one category
Source: Institute for Human Services