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Hawaii News

Collective effort helps hundreds

Dan Nakaso
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Amber Maxwell stood as her son Devin

On this Veterans Day, outreach workers are still trying to get the last 55 homeless military veterans on Oahu into a system that’s designed to take them from the streets and into a shelter within 30 days and find them a permanent place to live within 90 days.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell has joined the nationwide “mayor’s challenge” initiative to effectively end long-term homelessness for America’s veterans by the end of this year. His administration is working with a network of outreach workers, social service providers, the military and others to identify every homeless military veteran on the island and find them a place to live.

“We want to end homelessness for our veterans by Dec. 31,” said Jun Yang, executive director of the city’s office of housing. “We are going to connect and shelter as many homeless vets as possible and move them from the street to a shelter and into housing.”

While next year some veterans will continue to be homeless for short stretches in Honolulu and across the country, the goal is to reach a point of what’s called “functional zero,” which means different things in different cities all searching for answers.

In Honolulu, with a tight and expensive housing market, functional zero means that every homeless veteran will be identified, matched with services and put into a shelter within 30 days and placed in permanent housing within 90 days.

On Oahu the year began with 149 homeless veterans who were not being served. As of last week 55 remained unconnected to social service programs and without homes, Yang said.

“They’ve been encountered; somebody may have engaged with them,” he said. “But the next step hasn’t happened yet and we’re actively trying to find that individual again. We know them by name, and we know that they’re out there.”

The remaining 55 who have been identified on Oahu “are not ready yet,” said Erin Rutherford, Catholic Charities Hawaii’s program director of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. “It’s a matter of continuing to have people engage with them and persuade them that this (getting help) is probably the better option.”

The challenge to end veterans’ homelessness by the end of the year has done much more than create deadlines and targets, Rutherford said.

More important, she said, the push is helping to bring together everyone working to end homelessness across the islands, relying on shared, uniform information on every homeless person contacted by outreach workers.

“It’s very exciting,” Rutherford said. “We’re doing things that have never been done before. Nonprofits used to work in silos and didn’t coordinate together. Those kinds of things are new, making sure people are working together. It’s been very exciting, and I really, really, really hope we make our goal this year.”

For the fiscal year that ended in September, Catholic Charities Hawaii found permanent homes for more than 200 veterans across the islands out of 275 clients the organization worked with, Rutherford said.

“They were all genders, singles, couples, all types of households, all ages, usually ranging from late 20s to early 70s, from a variety of conflicts,” she said.

At a Nov. 17 landlord summit, Caldwell and Gov. David Ige will urge Realtors and landlords to rent properties to all kinds of homeless people including veterans who have special housing vouchers.

“With the landlord industry right now, it’s difficult to house any of our clients, whether they’re newly returned or older,” Rutherford said. “We can provide rent temporarily, but even so landlords don’t want to take a chance on them.”

As the nationwide end-of-year deadline to end long-term veteran homelessness approaches, “We’re pushing, pushing everything,” Yang said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have any more homeless, but it does mean we’re working on a system that will move them off the street and into a shelter or permanent housing quickly.”

The experience with veterans will then help everyone involved in Hawaii as they join other cities to end long-term homelessness for two other demographic groups, the chronically homeless (by 2016-2017) and families (by 2020), Yang said.

“Building off of what we’re learning about veteran homeless is a jumping-off point for families, chronics, youth,” he said.

Amber Maxwell, 38, served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait until she was medically retired as an Army specialist in 2011. She attended Moanalua High School as a sophomore in 1993 and had long dreamed of coming back to Oahu. After being accepted at Hawaii Pacific University to study computer science, Maxwell flew from Philadelphia to Honolulu with her two sons, ages 10 and 1, on Aug. 3.

Upon arrival, Maxwell found out that the female veteran she had planned to live with in Ewa Beach was in the hospital.

“We had lived together in the Army and served in Kuwait, and we spoke weeks before,” Maxwell said. “But I was left out of the loop when she actually got into the hospital. All I know is that when I got here, there was no place for me and my boys to go.”

Maxwell said she stayed because she is an African-American woman with two African-American boys. “I needed to be in a place where I wouldn’t be afraid of them having an encounter with police and they don’t come back.”

That high school year at Moanalua when Maxwell lived with her aunt who had been stationed here “made an indelible mark on my life,” she said. “It was the most beautiful place I had seen in my life. I wanted my kids to be part of it.”

The original plan was for Maxwell and her boys to stay with her friend until her GI Bill and HPU financial aid came through and she could get her own place.

Instead, she drove her rental car back across the island to the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe and spent six weeks and more than $1,000 living in the base hotel and later at the less expensive base cabanas.

By the time her 2010 Mazda 6 arrived in September, “I was out of money and out of credit,” Maxwell said.

The trio stayed on base for another week, sleeping in her car and sneaking into the beachside bathrooms to shower.

After that Maxwell spent another week living out of her car by the beach at Bellows and tried to apply for $600 a month in food stamps, “but I wasn’t able to get any type of benefits because I needed an address,” she said.

“I was homeless from the time I got here,” but, she added, “Once I hooked up with Catholic Charities, everything just turned around.”

Catholic Charities Hawaii taught Maxwell how to budget her finances and provided her with the first month’s rent and deposit on a three-bedroom, 1-1/2-bath unit with beamed ceilings in Kaneohe.

She’s now applying for scholarships and other financial aid and by next year plans “to be in a financially better spot with a little nest egg, definitely.”

Maxwell did not get into a shelter within 30 days, but she did beat Honolulu’s 90-day deadline to find permanent housing.

Today, Veterans Day, Maxwell considers the help from Catholic Charities Hawaii “a hand up” that she expects to repay someday.

“I plan on giving back,” she said. “I can give that hand back to help someone else.”

With the downsizing of the military, Darryl Vincent, chief operating officer of U.S.VETS in Kalaeloa, said more veterans are going to be homeless across the islands, and the public needs to be ready to help.

“Even at the end of the year, there’s still going to be a need to service our veterans,” Vincent said. “This is an ongoing process that will last a lifetime.”

By the numbers

Housing Honolulu’s homeless veterans

>> 30: Number of days that social service workers have to get homeless veterans into a temporary shelter

>> 90: Number of days to get them into permanent housing

>> 149: Number of Oahu homeless veterans in January who had yet to accept social services

>> 55: Number of veterans remaining on Oahu who have yet to get into social service programs intended to help them find temporary or permanent housing by Dec. 31

>> 90: Number of veterans in emergency shelters as of January

>> 33: Number of veterans in emergency shelters as of Veterans Day

>> 155: Number of veterans in transitional housing as of January

>> 61: Number of veterans in transitional housing as of Veterans Day

>> 227: Number of homeless veterans who moved from transitional housing and into permanent housing as of Veterans Day

Source: City and County of Honolulu

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