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Housing First, sobriety later

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    Dwight Green
  • Housing First client

The Institute for Human Services had one year to test the Housing First concept and find 115 permanent homes for clients helping to alleviate Oahu’s homeless crisis.

The last two clients were accommodated just one day before the Oct. 31 target date in a program expected to save taxpayers money, get people off the street and help formerly homeless tenants turn their lives around, according to the preliminary results of a University of Hawaii study.

With Housing First, allowing people to drink and use drugs while getting services “is probably the best means to getting people to ultimately improve their physical and mental health and well-being,” said Jack Barile, an assistant UH psychology professor who is leading the study on the city’s Housing First program run through IHS.

“It’s cost-effective and reduces reliance on police and fire and hospitals, especially emergency rooms,” Barile said. “There’s an upfront cost because housing’s not free. But as far as cost-effectiveness, from a financial standpoint, it’s cheaper to put someone into a house than it is to have them living on the street.”

By mid-December, Barile and his graduate students plan to produce their final report, which is expected to detail the cost savings on Oahu of providing housing compared with letting people remain homeless.

The UH study surveyed the formerly homeless tenants about how they felt physically and mentally after getting into homes. They reported having more days when they felt better, had more energy and were more active. They had fewer stressful days and experienced more days when they were generally satisfied with life and had hope for the future.

Landlord Summit

Hosted by Gov. David Ige, Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the Hawaii Association of Realtors and Partners in Care

>> When: 9 a.m. to noon Nov. 17. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m.
>> Where: Pomaikai Ballroom, Dole Cannery
>> What: To discuss renting Housing First units to homeless people. Attendees will learn about different housing and social service programs that will be provided to both landlords and formerly homeless tenants under the Housing First program and hear from landlords about their experiences with it.
>> To register: Visit or

The preliminary results show “an improvement in both physical and mental health from the time people become housed that will likely result in marked reduction of arrests and hospitalizations,” Barile said. “They become more integrated and connected to the community and tend to attend more community events and spiritual groups. We’re hitting all those marks.”

Through Housing First, landlords are guaranteed rent, have someone to call 24 hours a day for problems and are promised that any damage to their units will be repaired assurances they won’t find on the open market, according to the executive director of IHS, Connie Mitchell. The formerly homeless tenants pay 30 percent of the rent, typically from their government benefits.

In the first year of its Housing First contract with the city, IHS targeted hard-core clients who had been homeless the longest, frequently called 911 and were more likely to get arrested, visit emergency rooms and have mental health, alcohol and drug problems.

“Some had behavior health issues, some were medically frail with chronic health problems,” Mitchell said. “We had to deal with dialysis, really severe diabetes, lost digits and toes, really bad infections, cancer. It really was the people who had been using the hospital a lot or were being arrested.”

By the end of the first year, 173 people including 20 families were housed in 115 homes. The majority were single men with an average age of 47.

Of the 173, only one was evicted and was replaced by another homeless person. The evicted client later was successfully placed in a second Housing First unit, said IHS spokesman Kimo Carvalho.

One ended up in jail. One died. One went into public housing to live with family. One also reunited with family back home on Hawaii island.

One went back to the street.

Among the most promising signs in the first year was the fact that about half of the landlords had never rented to a homeless person before, but perhaps did so because “we do hold our clients responsible,” Mitchell said.

IHS’ annual $2.1 million Housing First contract now moves into its second year, with some of the money shifting toward providing services to keep clients from the first year stable.

The preliminary results of the UH study come on the eve of a Nov. 17 landlord summit at the Dole Cannery Pomaikai Ballroom, where Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell will try to persuade more Oahu landlords to rent to homeless people despite Oahu’s tight and expensive housing market.

The summit is the result of a first-of-its kind partnership between Ige and the Hawaii Association of Realtors, who want to reduce the number of homeless people from the 7,620 counted Jan. 25 by getting them into market-priced rental units.

“Realistically, it is a challenge, to be quite honest,” said Myoung Oh, the Realtors association’s director of government affairs.

Anyone, not just Realtors and property owners, is invited to the free summit, and Oh has a simple request for those who show up.

“Keep an open mind when you come to this event, and walk away with a little more understanding,” he said.

Dwight Green, 54, knows the fear that landlords have in renting to people like him.

But he also believes part of the fear is driven from the mistaken belief that they could never end up on the streets themselves.

“People like to look down at the homeless because they believe it would never happen to them,” Green said. “They’re kidding themselves. There’s so many people out there living one paycheck away from being homeless.”

Green had been working at a job he loved as a high-end picture framer when a serious moped accident required three surgeries, left him in the hospital for weeks and cost him his job when he was replaced at work.

The accident and its aftermath represented the beginning of Green’s spiral into an uncertain life on the streets, where he was constantly swept from one encampment to the next and became disenchanted with life.

“When I was on the street, I had a don’t-give-a-damn attitude,” Green said. “‘Why bother? Nobody else cares. I give up.’ That was my justification for drinking. I just lost hope. I was on the edge. Then, boom. The universe came through for a brother.”

Five months after an IHS outreach worker got him into a Waikiki studio apartment at the three-story Hawaiian Colony complex, Green is now in a 12-step program and for the first time after 15 years on the street feels optimistic about the future.

Green insists that he is now clean and sober, much more spiritual and “humble.”

Like other homeless people who go from the streets into a new home, Green faced lots of adjustments.

But he remembers the first night in his new apartment five months ago, cooking beef stew in a crockpot.

“It felt like, ‘It’s about time,’” Green said. “I hadn’t been able to cook in a long while, and it felt good. I felt I had arrived. I was back on planet Earth, back in the world, like the Vietnam vets say. Because when you’re out there on the street, people don’t see you, or they don’t see you in the right light.”

He calls the Housing First concept “a no-brainer.”

As he sat in his apartment, which he furnished through Goodwill purchases, donations and discarded items he found on the street, Green said his Housing First home is just the beginning of a new life.

“This is a springboard for bigger and better things,” he said. “I want to leave this place for someone else who needs it.”

After nine years on the street, Vance Apolo, 61, moved into his Housing First apartment Aug. 4.

Apolo and Green don’t know each other, but they live in similar studio apartments in Hawaiian Colony, which welcomes Housing First tenants.

Having a home was so foreign to Apolo that he spent the first two weeks sleeping back at his old spot in front of the McCully-Moiliili Public Library near Old Stadium Park, returning to his apartment by day.

“I’m used to it now, and I like having a shower and a bed to lie on and a TV to watch,” Apolo said.

While some criticize sweeps of homeless encampments, Apolo said they indirectly pushed him to try Housing First.

“I got so tired of those sweeps by the city and county and the Honolulu Police Department hassling us,” he said.

Like Green, Apolo had always worked until he quit his $14-an-hour a job driving a tour bus when his bad eyesight caused him to nearly hit a woman in a crosswalk.

“I just had to quit,” he said.

Then his landlord did not like Apolo’s girlfriend living with him, and he got evicted.

In his new apartment, Apolo is allowed to enjoy his 40-ounce malt liquor beers under the Housing First concept. But he insisted that his consumption has dropped since he moved in.

Like Green, Apolo also outfitted his new home partly through donations. He filled his kitchen by dumpster-diving for pots and pans that had been cast aside.

Apolo spoke about his newly scrubbed cooking tools, but he might as well have been addressing Housing First tenants like himself when he said:

“All you gotta do is clean ’em up. They’re still good.”

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