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New shelter’s emphasis will be helping families

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    Wood framing has gone up in the 5,000-square-foot former maintenance building in Kakaako, pictured above Wednesday, that will become a shelter for an estimated 240 people annually.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    A view of a maintenance building behind the John A. Burns School of Medicine that will become a new shelter option in the area.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-ADVERTISER

    Oropa Repingerni, and her children, Jeziah, left, Janna, Jayreen and Jane ate snacks Wednesday at Kakaako Waterfront Park. They are clients of the Next Step shelter, which does not allow families to stay during the day.

Oahu’s newest homeless shelter, scheduled to open in Kakaako in late September, uses a new approach designed to quickly get homeless families off the streets and into long-term housing.

A former maintenance building in the heart of the persistent Kakaako homeless encampment was still being renovated Wednesday after a six-month delay caused by the discovery of a malfunctioning sewer pump.

A new pump had been swapped in by Wednesday as Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, pointed out new wood framing on the Diamond Head side of the 5,000-square-foot structure that will house separate men’s and women’s showers and toilets, along with similar facilities for people with disabilities.

Most of the interior space will be filled with cubicles for as many as 60 family members at a time, for an expected total of 240 people annually.

Gov. David Ige in November told reporters he hoped to have the building renovated and opened by February — then workers discovered the broken sewer pump.

The delay gave the state time to develop a plan for what will be called the Family Assessment Center, where homeless clients will be given on-site social service help to find homes and get assistance managing finances, Morishige said.

“We’re really listening to all the input we’ve received,” he said.

The state looked at what works — and what doesn’t — at the nearby Next Step Shelter and the city’s nascent Hale Mauliola community on Sand Island while envisioning the new approach in Kakaako, Morishige said.

Unlike Next Step, which is just around the corner, homeless families will be able to remain inside during the day. They won’t be required to have identification, which homeless people frequently lose in sweeps or have stolen.

Unlike Hale Mauliola, pets will not be allowed because of the close confines, Morishige said. But Hale Mauliola has proven that even chronically homeless adults can get off the street and into jobs and long-term housing through on-site assistance, Morishige said.

At the Family Assessment Center, family stays will be limited to 90 days because the goal is to get the clients out of the shelter and into permanent homes as quickly as possible, Morishige said.

“This is temporary,” he said. “It’s a stopgap.”

Despite the delays, the $750,000 renovation of the maintenance building is on budget, Morishige said.

The Family Assessment Center has an annual operating budget of $450,000.

The shelter is scheduled to operate for two years. After that, it’ll revert to the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which operates the parks.

Next Step client Jessy Luther, 27, sat on a concrete picnic table along the shoreline of Kakaako Waterfront Park on Wednesday watching his 2-1/2-month-old daughter sleep in a stroller.

When told about the new Family Assessment Center, Luther said he thought it would be a better fit for his family than Next Step, which they have to leave during the day.

“That sounds good,” Luther said. “I’ll be very interested. It would help us out.”

Luther sees other homeless families from Next Step along the Kakaako shoreline every day, including his cousins. “There’s a lot of us” with families, he said.

Luther’s four older children — the oldest is 5 years old — were with their mother, Oropa Repingeni, enjoying a snack of chicken salad sandwiches, fresh fruit, Go-Gurt and crackers at an outdoor preschool and family education program that the Partners in Development Foundation set up in Waterfront Park five weeks ago.

“Every day we’re getting new families coming,” said Cheri Richards, site supervisor and family literacy coordinator for the Partners in Development Foundation.

While renovations continue at the Kakaako building, Morishige said, some of the center’s operational matters are also still in the works.

He hopes a group will step up to donate air mattresses so families won’t have to sleep on the shelter’s concrete floor. Last month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated money to buy heavy-duty air mattresses for Next Step’s 159 single and family cubicles, with enough money left over to replace mattresses as needed.

Morishige also hopes to partner with churches to provide ready-to-eat meals because the shelter has no kitchen or food storage.

In addition, a social service provider has yet to be selected by the state Department of Human Services to work with clients moving from the shelter to homes. Because a contract has yet to be negotiated, Morishige said there is no designated dollar amount to pay the provider.

The combined efforts of the city and state over the last year have reduced Kakaako’s homeless population to a tenth of what it was last summer after state Rep. Tom Brower was attacked while photographing the encampment.

The majority of homeless people who remain in Kakaako tend to be single, chronically homeless adults who have been living off the grid for years.

But Morishige expects that the new Family Assessment Center will be busy helping homeless families from both Kakaako and across the island.

While many shelters for single adults typically have empty bed space each night, Morishige said, homeless families are on long waitlists to get into a family shelter.

“It’s a different segment of the homeless population,” he said. “And there are still some unsheltered families with children living in the park.”

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