Shoulders slumped and faces fell as 10 formerly homeless people with HIV and AIDS were told that the federal government will no longer pay for their housing after Aug. 31.
Deric Anzai, 59, was among the residents of Gregory House Programs on Young Street who struggled to absorb the implications of the cuts on a life that he considered ending before entering Gregory House just a month ago.
“I was contemplating going to sleep and not waking up again,” said Anzai, who is HIV-positive. “This place gave me hope again.”
Gene DeFrancia’s Shih Tzu-terrier mix, Buffy, sat with her head on her owner’s left shoulder as DeFrancia wondered about his own uncertain future once the money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development runs out.
Gregory House, DeFrancia said, “changed my life — literally,” adding, “Before, I was lost. I had nowhere to go.”
In all, 20 people with HIV/AIDS pay 30 percent of their monthly rental costs — typically from their government aid — to live in Gregory House apartments. But the bulk of the program is funded by HUD, which had been contributing $335,489 annually.
This month HUD notified eight Oahu nonprofit groups such as Gregory House that provide transitional homeless housing that their money will dry up this year.
Across the country, HUD is shifting its homeless funding priorities away from transitional programs such as Gregory House and into so-called “permanent supportive housing,” which is often referred to as Housing First. The Housing First model takes homeless people off the street and into fair-market rental units where they receive social service help for issues that can include mental health problems and substance abuse.
Most of the eight Oahu programs were told retroactively through emails that their HUD funding had been cut off days earlier, on April 30. Gregory House Programs still has three months to go on its annual HUD contract, which expires Aug. 31.
However, like most of the other programs on an island struggling with the highest per capita homeless rate in the country, fierce competition has begun to find money to stay solvent.
Jonathon Berliner, executive director of Gregory House Programs, told the residents gathered Thursday at its facility on Young Street that HUD offered no encouragement in its email, just a note “thanking us for our years of service.”
Berliner vowed to find some way to keep the formerly homeless residents in their apartments, where they receive medical services that raised Anzai’s T cell count and improved his diagnosis from full-blown AIDS to HIV-positive in just one month.
“This is a very important program,” Berliner told the subdued residents. “We’re not going to let anybody be homeless or be pushed out. Come hell or high water, you will not be put on the streets.”
Berliner, however, could not say how that could be avoided.
“Beginning Sept. 1,” he told the residents, “we don’t know yet what we’re going to do. I wish I could say what’s going to happen on Sept. 1, but I’d be lying. … It certainly can’t hurt to do some praying.”
Across the island in Waianae, officials with Ho‘omau ke Ola were simultaneously struggling to figure out how to keep operating after HUD cut off its $172,00 in annual funding as of April 30.
“We’re scrambling right now,” said Executive Director Patti Isaacs.
Ho‘omau ke Ola provides several programs for recovering addicts that blend Western treatment with ancient Hawaiian cultural practices.
HUD’s funding paid for the bulk of Ho‘omau ke Ola’s residential program. The money covers salaries for specialized staff who — despite the abrupt loss of funding — continue to help 24 recovering addicts deal with a wide range of problems.
“We have people who are schizophrenic, who were suicidal,” Isaacs said. “I can’t believe what HUD did.”
HUD officials told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week that the shift in funding priorities will benefit more homeless people across the country, while acknowledging that programs that lose money will have to find money somewhere else.
Ho‘omau ke Ola treats both non-Hawaiian and Hawaiian clients such as Sheena-Devon “Kehaulani” Brown, 25, of Kauai and Waimanalo, who started the program March 21.
Brown tried religious-oriented substance abuse treatment for her methamphetamine and marijuana use on Hawaii island, but it didn’t work.
Ho‘omau ke Ola tapped Brown’s dormant Hawaiian roots, and now Brown contends the approach will stick.
As she cleaned out invasive weeds from a garden surrounded by 1,000 acres of Waianae Valley land that Ho‘omau ke Ola leases from the state, Brown smiled broadly when asked why she believes Ho‘omau ke Ola’s approach works.
“It’s ohana,” she said. “It was everything I was longing for. It’s important to be connected to the aina, to our kupuna, to everything that surrounds us.”
Other treatment programs also did not work for Adrian Gerhard Kealoha-Kaimi Bihag, 22, of Waikiki, who kept getting into trouble with the law for a hair-trigger temper that emanated from a life focused around gangs, violence, drug use and dealing, including heroin and cocaine.
“Before,” Bihag said, “I was a rowdy-kine person.”
Until he entered Ho‘omau ke Ola, Bihag also had little connection to his Hawaiian heritage.
Now, after working the land side by side with Hawaiian elders and learning ancient chants about respect and humility, along with other cultural practices, Bihag has a fresh, new attitude.
“It’s important for us as Hawaiians — especially us Hawaiians from a drug life, from a gang life,” he said. “We have to learn to do things in a positive way and with humility. It’s given me pride and respect, and it’s building me up in a more spiritual way.”
On Thursday, Bihag celebrated nine months of sobriety — “the longest I ever stay sober” — and he’s committed to turning his life around.
“This time around,” Bihag said, “I’m sure I can maintain my sobriety.”
The emphasis on both Western and Native Hawaiian approaches also helped transplants such as Robert Hetzel of Grand Rapids, Mich., who became a homeless meth addict for 10 years on the Waianae Coast after mustering out of the Navy.
Hetzel, 49, kept going in and out of Oahu Community Correctional Center until he followed up on one of the many Ho‘omau ke Ola fliers that were always packed into the food handouts Hetzel got on the beach from social service outreach workers.
After completing Ho‘omau ke Ola’s residential treatment program in 2010, Hetzel serves on the board of directors, is now graduating from Leeward Community College and plans to go on to the University of Hawaii West Oahu.
Hetzel frequently relies on the messages behind the chants he learned at Ho‘omau ke Ola.
The emphasis on Hawaiian culture, Hetzel said, “is the most important part of the treatment,” adding, “It’s healing. It struck home with me.”
Even though the HUD funds disappeared last month, the staff of Ho‘omau ke Ola refuses to shut down its residential program, which HUD considers “transitional.”
So they’re looking at ways to cut costs while hustling to find new sources of revenue to plug the sudden loss of federal funding.
Their first effort — a car wash May 7 — generated $700.
But that still leaves Ho‘omau ke Ola short by $171,300 to keep operating.